Schemes in a Guilded Age

“Though I may walk between high walls, or in the darkest corridors, I shall neither be lost nor forgotten. Though I may stand on the tallest mountain, or cry out in the depths, I shall be both seen and heard. Though I may be on the edges of life, I shall be known in sum to God. Every step and breath and thought of mine shall be recorded, from the rising of my star to its setting.”

-from “Eighth Song: Wisdom”

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Aymon had been fairly surprised when a note slipped through to him from Yuuni Olms, requesting a meeting. Things had been quiet from the Trade Guild, as quiet as they could be, anyway, and he had thought that everyone was just quietly adjusting to the new regime. It had been a few months. Though Aymon had a few informants within the Guild, as well as plenty of intelligence gathering tools in places Guildmembers tended to gather, he had barely heard a peep about trouble. If that was because Nomar Thule knew exactly how much his government was being spied on and kept all business as private as possible, or if the Guild had been operating business as usual, Aymon couldn't tell. It had been two months since Ungarti Vaneik's murder, and as of yet, no additional evidence had yet surfaced to prove Halen's hunch that Thule had murdered the elder Vaneik. That wasn't unusual. Thule, and it almost certainly had been Thule, had covered his tracks. What was unusual is that the young Wil Vaneik had managed to survive as the head of the Guild this long without making a complete fool of himself.

He attended Council meetings without issue. All his personal correspondence was polite, to the point, and looked like it had been proofread by someone much smarter than he was. No charges had flowed out of his bank account to various… entertainment… agencies. Overall, Wil Vaneik was taking to heart the idea that a quiet man will come off as more intelligent than a loud one. It was unlikely that such change had been wrought simply Vaneik accepting and understanding the burden placed upon him as head of the Trade Guild. Aymon suspected that, behind closed doors, Vaneik was being led around on a string by Nomar Thule and all of his close associates.

One thing that was made very, very clear in all the intercepted ansible messages, the secretly recorded conversations, and the reports written by paid agents, was that Thule was at the center of a vast spider web within the Guild. His time working the finances had given him contacts on every ship and a deep understanding of exactly how the Guild operated. It wouldn't have shocked Aymon if Thule knew more about the Guild's coffers than even the elder Vaneik had. The Guildmaster had to trust his subordinates to run things, just as Aymon did. Although Aymon had a general idea of the flow of money around the Empire, he couldn't say exactly how much money was flowing in and out of every planet, who was getting rich, what legal and illegal businesses the prominent players were engaged in, and who to talk to to make things happen. He compensated for this mortal failing by having his own trusted network to provide the essentials, and he kept those people in check by having still others watching them closely. And at least, if Aymon couldn’t hold ever detail of the Empire in his head, no one else could either.

Except, perhaps, the Emperor.

Aymon shook his head and returned to rereading the note on his tablet. Yuuni Olms wanted to meet because… The note didn't outright say. It sounded as though she wanted to take Aymon up on his offer for a job within Stonecourt, but there was no reason that a request like that would have come to his attention if there hadn't been some sort of deeper meaning.

He had told his secretary to schedule a meeting with her. Now she was here. If he had wanted, he could have tracked her progress through the building on the security cameras, but there was no reason for it. She would be here in a minute.

Sid and Kino were off working. Sid had taken a great interest in Fleet operations recently, and since it kept him from badgering him about going off on a ship by himself, Aymon was fine with that interest. He had him working closely with people who were planning the Fleet's next moves, farther out in the galaxy. They needed to find more planets to colonize, and if that meant taking them by force, all the better. The Empire had an insatiable appetite for expansion, as was human nature. Sid’s pleading had succeeded in planting the seeds of an idea in Aymon's head. Maybe it would be good to have the Fleet take decisive action against pirates. It had been far too long since the last time that had been a priority.

Kino was sitting in on Imperial Council meetings. Aymon had instructed her to get to know the major power players in the Council, and to ingratiate herself with them. It wasn't going particularly well. Though Kino was competent, she was also distinctly difficult to get to know. The idea was that she needed the practice of talking to people more, and forming relationships, but it seemed to be making her miserable. Every time he saw her she looked exhausted, and she practically dragged her feet on the way to Council meetings, or whenever there was some sort of social event being put on.

Halen was behind him, as always. He had been sad lately. Aymon couldn't blame him. The loss of Yan had affected all of them, and the hurt wasn't growing less raw with age. Although Halen was always on top of intelligence, he took extra care with every scrap of information they had been provided about Yan. Unfortunately, it was a paltry amount. They had traced Yan's kidnappers as far as all of the crew who had defected from the Tranquility, and had followed the breadcrumb trail of messages that had led them to cooperate with whoever coordinated the operation. The whole lot of them were paid in drugs, which were much harder to track than the movement of charges from one account to another. It was more likely that they would find the defectors based on surveillance on black stations than simply chasing rumors. If any one of them were to be caught, it might spark a chain reaction that would lead to Yan. As it was, the trail was disturbingly cold. Aymon had never seen people that able to cover up their own tracks. It was as though Yan had vanished from the galaxy, and everyone who had been involved with taking her had vanished too.

There was still hope that she would be found. That was what kept them going, and what kept Halen glued to every report from agents in the field the moment that it came out.

Aymon's thoughts slid around in his head as he waited for Olms to appear, always returning to the same few subjects. There were plenty of other things that he should have been focusing on, but every second that he wasn't forcing himself to think about other things, he drifted back. Everyone was distracted and in a bad mood, and had been for two months. It didn't make for a well functioning government, but Aymon was doing what he could.

He looked up when he heard the knock on his door.

"Olms," Halen said from behind him.

Aymon stood and went to open the door. He could have had it swing open with just a press of a button underneath his desk, but there was no need for him to come off as impressive to Olms. She was a relative nobody, ever since her mentor had died, and he liked her enough anyway.

Physically, Olms looked the same as she had two months ago. She was the same tall and slender girl he had seen lurking behind Vaneik any number of times over the past five years, but there was something new in her posture now: a wariness and tiredness that hadn't been there before. It seemed completely at odds with the happy way she had discussed going off to become captain of her own ship not so long ago. What had changed since then?

"Hello, Ms. Olms," Aymon said. It was odd not to address her as Apprentice Olms. "Come right in."

"Thank you, First Sandreas," Olms said, flashing him a brief smile. Aymon closed the door behind her. Olms looked around at the office, taking in the airy white walls and the expensive but tasteful furnishings. Aymon had never visited the elder Vaneik on his own home turf. He now wondered with a slight pang of regret what it had looked like, Vaneik’s office on his ship. It was still the strangest sensation to find himself missing the man. They had barely tolerated each other while he was alive. Perhaps his feelings about Vaneik were getting all tied up in his sadness over Yan. Halen nodded to Olms as her gaze passed over him. Odd.

"Go ahead and take a seat," Aymon said. They sat opposite from each other on the couches. Olms was about the same height as Yan, and sat on the couch in the exact same way, folding herself up so as to avoid knocking things with her long limbs. They were so different, but it was that sort of memory that brought his sadness into clear focus, again and again.

"So, a little birdie told me that you've come to take a government job, despite your protestations to the contrary," Aymon said, putting on a smile.

"Is that what I said in my letter to you?" Olms asked. "I thought I phrased things a little bit more delicately than that."

"Oh, I read between the lines. But you certainly didn't have to come all the way here if you wanted a job. You could have just asked outright."

"It's a little hard to know where the line should be between talking plainly and talking tactfully," Olms said. "I'm grateful for the chance to talk to you in person."

"It's not a problem. So long as I don't have to go somewhere, I can almost always fit in a quick meeting."

"Then I did have to come to you."

"Only if you had something that needed to be discussed in person," Aymon said. He was trying to leave the door open for her to discuss whatever it was she had come to say. It was true that he could fit her in, but it was also true that he didn't want to waste time beating around the bush. It wasn't as though Olms had much personal standing; it would be absurd of her to be offended that he was trying to make this fast.

She bit her lower lip, looking nervously over to the side. "In your opinion, how tactful does someone like me need to be?" Olms asked.

"You didn't come here for a lesson in manners. You should talk to your own mother if you want one of those," Aymon said. "I trust that I won't take too much offense at anything that you have to say. I'm sure you didn't come here to insult me."

"No. I came because…" Olms paused, a long, silent moment. Aymon looked at her calmly. He wondered what sort of information she was going to divulge. There had to be some reason for her to be here. It probably was going to be good, but he doubted it would be anything truly novel. After all, he had people watching the Guild constantly. "What happened to the star drives that you promised to Ungarti?"

"I was still planning on delivering them. Bidding doesn't start until next month, right?" The process by which stardrives were allocated to the various ships in the Guild was an arcane one that mainly involved desperation, large amounts of money changing hands, and managing political favor.

"Officially," Olms said.

"And unofficially?" Aymon asked.

"The numbers that have been circulating about the number of stardrives available don't add up," Olms said. "People are getting antsy."

"Really? I haven't heard anything."

"Of course you haven't," Olms said dismissively. She realized who she was talking to and backtracked. "Sorry. I just, if I'm here anyway, I might as well say it. Everyone knows you watch the Guild. But there's no way you could bug every ship and every meeting place. So business happens far away from walls with ears. And nobody writes anything down."

"I commend the Guild on their operational security," Aymon said dryly. "But that level of paranoia is not necessary."

Olms smiled, a thin line, and waited for Aymon to continue.

"But the stardrives," Aymon said. "What are people saying? Anything strange?"

"There's been nothing but strange things going on over the past three months," she said. "Even before Ungarti died, I…"

"You what?" This was beginning to be excruciating. If Olms had come all this way, she might as well say what was on her mind. Aymon wasn't going to punish her for it.

"I thought that there might be more going on than I was aware of."

"In what way?"

"I don't know. Nothing I could put a finger on. But Marne Vaneik, we had always been close, she stopped talking to me. And Nomar would try to sabotage me more than usual. And then him throwing his support behind Wil Vaneik, I get it, I guess. It's a good political move, but." Her hands balled up into fists. "I suppose I can't complain. I threw my support behind Vaneik, too."

"I'm sorry, Ms. Olms, I'm not sure exactly what you're complaining about?" Aymon's thoughts were actually buzzing. Had Marne Vaneik been connected to Ungarti's murder? He hadn't had a chance to talk to her alone, merely giving his condolences at the appropriate public times.

"I was hopeful that Guild politics would stop messing with my future plans. But there are people who insist on punishing me for crimes I did not commit." Olms's ears were red. She had a barely contained rage underneath her skin. Aymon remembered the description of that meeting that Yan and Sid had with Olms. The girl could stand to learn some self control.

"Such as?"

"Whatever danger Nomar sees in me, he refuses to take my word that I have no interest in stealing the Guild from him. As soon as I figured out that getting a recommendation from Ungarti was a lost cause, I decided I wasn't going to fight. But he never considered that I could be anything other than a scheming-" She cut herself off. "He never considered that I would ever rise above his petty level."

"Isn't it settled by now? After all, Wil is Guildmaster."

"With Nomar pulling the strings," Olms said. Aymon nodded. "But no. It's not settled."

"Are you intending to get back into politics?" Aymon asked.

"No! I want my ship." Olms took a deep breath, clearly trying to steady herself. Aymon waited. It was almost funny to watch her. She was a spitfire, that was for sure.

"Your ship?"

"It would be my ship, if Nomar wasn't hoarding stardrives."

So there was the root of the problem. Aymon was a little put out that she had come all this way just to whine to him about not getting a stardrive for her personal pet project, but he might as well humor her. "Do you know what he's hoarding them for?"

"If I knew, I probably would have led with that. I'd assume they're going to go to anyone he needs a favor from, but I don't know how he plans on pulling that off without setting the whole Guild into a panic spiral."

"The bidding has never once been fair."

"There's a difference between a bidding where the results are decided beforehand, and giving stardrives to people without even the pretense of offering them to the public."

"Would they be for new ships?" Aymon asked, curious.

"It would be stupid to replace a stardrive that isn't coming to the end of its life, so probably."

"What would people do if a new ship just appeared in the Guild, do you think?" Aymon asked.

"It would depend on who it belonged to. But there would be some sort of crisis regardless. People aren't willing to stand under a leader who snubs them."

"And would they blame Vaneik for this, or Thule?"

"Vaneik. It's not like you can go pointing figures at people who are working behind the scenes."

"You can."

"But Wil would be the target. The only way it would bring Nomar down is if he couldn't find a way to ingratiate himself with whoever leads the strike against Wil Vaneik."

"You paint a picture of Thule as both malicious and clever," Aymon said.

"Am I wrong?"

Aymon didn’t respond, just waited for Olms to continue. People who wanted to talk always did.

Olms leaned back on the couch with a heavy sigh. "Does this sound like I'm just here being mad that my daddy can't fork over tons of money to get me a shiny toy?"

"At least you're a little self aware," Aymon said, genuinely amused. "Is there anything that you want the Imperial Government to do about it?"

"I'm just letting you know that you should keep an eye on those stardrives. I don't think that anything good can come from keeping them away from the rest of the Guild."

"We will, thank you for the tip. You know, if you wanted to be a captain, you could always join the Fleet. I'm sure you could have a command in no time."

"Oh, God, no, thanks," Olms said, sounding genuinely disgusted. "I have no desire to hop about blindly exploring the galaxy. It sounds miserable."

"How uncharacteristic that a spacer prefers to stay close to home."

"I simply prefer to be among my own kind," Olms said. "Fleet ships are all crewed by planetary recruits. I doubt I'd fit in."

"You never know," Aymon said. "And if you're going to be prevented from getting a stardrive, well, you should consider all your options."

"I'll consider them. But if I had wanted to go into the Fleet, I would have tried to get a Fleet apprenticeship."

"Are you sure you haven't grown and changed in the five years since you graduated the Academy? You aren't a different person now: maybe a person who would enjoy the Fleet for what it is?"

"You know, I've had about…" Olms stared up at the ceiling and counted on her fingers. "Three real conversations with you, and in most of them you try to convince me to take a job that I do not want."

"But you came to me asking for a job."

"Sure. But not on a Fleet ship or Emerri."

"Then what job do you want?"

"If you can help me get a stardrive, I'll help keep an ear out in the Guild."

"What information would you be able to provide that would be worth it to me?" Aymon asked. He wasn't usually in the business of personally recruiting spies, but he might as well hear Olms out. She was a nice enough girl, and proved herself at least a little trustworthy by her distaste for Thule, the murderer.

"I know that you already have informers." Olms waved her hand, dismissing them. "And I know that some people already don't trust me because of my Academy training. But people trust my father, and my family. And my father and my family trust me. I can keep my ears to the ground and tell you all the things that people don't like to say on stations, or write down on their ships computers."

"And that's worth a stardrive to me?" Aymon said. "I'm afraid that you're vastly overestimating your own importance."

"I'm not asking for a new stardrive. I'm just asking that, if the stardrives that you promised to Ungarti aren't publicly announced for bidding, you'll put a little pressure on the Guild to pony them up."

"But you wouldn't be guaranteed to win one, especially if Thule has it out for you like you say."

"I'd have a better chance than none at all," Olms said. "I'm not asking for anything unreasonable here."

"You're asking me to possibly jeopardize my relationship with the new Guild leadership, not even half a year into it. That is a lot for you to ask, in exchange for relatively little." Aymon wasn't trying to be harsh, he was just pointing out facts.

"Do you really think that whatever Nomar is planning to do with those stardrives is anything that will benefit the Empire? Or the Guild, for that matter?"

"We always have to ask who is going to profit from any venture. And I'd guess that the people standing to profit are Nomar Thule and Wil Vaneik. I wouldn't even know if their families will get a cut of whatever they're planning."

"Nomar hates his family, so probably not."

"Interesting," Aymon said. The Guild and their constant personal squabblings tended to get on his nerves. He really didn't want to steer the conversation into rehashing every personal grievance Thule had ever uttered about his great aunt Mona or whatever. "But the real question is, what are the things that Thule could do, and who else will benefit, even if only accidentally, from those actions."

"He could sell the stardrives to pirates," Olms muttered. Aymon looked at her, and she brought herself back to a semblance of professionalism, sitting up straighter on the couch.

"That seems unlikely, unless the Guild is far worse off than I had ever imagined."

"It's not, I'm just angry."

"I can tell."

"Hah. I've always had a temper."

"It can be a tool, but you should be wary of using it," Aymon cautioned. "Didn't Ungarti ever tell you that?"

"He said a lot of things. I think his main rule was to never get angry at your betters. That way you can never get in trouble."

"That would be easy for a man with very few betters to say," Aymon said with a smile. "But I can easily imagine him saying it without a hint of irony."

"I miss him," Olms said. "I know it's dumb, and I was going to be done with my apprenticeship anyway, but it ended in such an awful way."

"I'm sorry," Aymon said. "I understand what it's like to lose a mentor." In a sense. He wondered if Olms had any inkling that the elder Vaneik was murdered. He didn't think she did, and he wasn't going to bring it up.

"It's ok. I'm just mad at myself. It's been two months, you'd think I'd have gotten over it by now. It didn't even hit me until I was back on my family's ship."

"There was a lot going on at the time. Everyone takes different amounts of time to grieve, and the people who made the biggest impacts on our lives stay with us the longest," Aymon said. "You can't be faulted for that."

Olms looked down at her lap and smoothed the fabric of her cassock out.

"But back to the matter at hand," Aymon said. "I can't make any promises, but I will be keeping an eye on things. I don't want to turn any of this into a public disaster."

"You could try to shame them into releasing them. Announce the extra stardrives yourself."

"I could. Or I could privately threaten to withdraw my offer."

"That wouldn't do anyone any good."

"But it would stop whatever Thule is planning," Aymon said, smiling. Olms really wanted a chance at one of those stardrives. "I'm just keeping my options open."

"Either way, I think you'd upset Thule."

"I'm going to do something that sets him off eventually," Aymon said. "If you recall, I haven't had the best track record with Guildmasters."

"Thule isn't the Guildmaster."

"He might as well be. You don't think that Wil Vaneik has suddenly grown up, do you?"

"I try to stay as far away from Wil Vaneik as I can," Olms said, failing to conceal the expression of disgust and contempt on her face.

"Probably a good idea. Was there anything else you needed, Ms. Olms?"

"Not anything worth bothering you about," Olms said.

"Alright. Like I said, I'll keep an eye on the situation. Thank you for bringing it to my attention early, so that I can have a chance to do something about it before the bidding starts."

"Not a problem."

"And you know how to contact me."

Olms nodded. "I will keep an ear out. I have as much of an interest in this as you do."

"I suspect you have a much more personal one. Pay attention to anything you hear about Thule, will you?"

"Of course," Olms said. "He's the one causing all this trouble."

"I think there's more to him than just the current trouble," Aymon said cryptically. "He's going to play a long game."

"If he is, then I guess I'll have to as well."

"Even if you got a stardrive, it'd be years before you had a complete ship," Aymon said. "Slow down. You've got your whole life ahead of you."

"Yeah, unless something happens to me."

"You think something will? Should I be worried?"

Olms scowled. "No. I'm just being stupid."

"If you think that your life is in danger, we can help you with that."

"By keeping me trapped on a planet? Thanks, but no. I'm capable of defending myself."

"I don't doubt it, but…" Aymon stopped. "Stay safe, alright?" It was a useless warning, but he wished he could go back in time and deliver it to the other young spacer girl he knew.

"I'll do my best. Thank you, First Sandreas."

"Not a problem, Ms. Olms." Aymon stood and they shook hands. He led her over to the door. She nodded at Halen, who had been standing near the wall the whole time. "Keep in touch."

"I will." They smiled at each other briefly as he held the door open for her. She left, and Aymon sighed and looked at Halen.

"Complication after complication," he said.

"You know she was genuinely worried that someone is going to kill her, right?" Halen asked.

"I doubt she would have brought it up if she wasn't," Aymon said. "But she should be safe enough on her father's ship."

"She's not on her father's ship right now," Halen said. Aymon walked back toward his desk, sat, picked up his tablet and put it down again restlessly. "I don't bet charges on murder attempts," Halen continued, "but I think that Thule has proven himself untrustworthy."

"I can't tell if it's a grudge that's causing him to withhold the stardrives, or if he has some sort of plot. Olms seems to think that this is about her."

"I'd say that it's more likely a plot, but if it also hurts an old political rival I don't think Thule would be unhappy about it."

"Heh. Yeah." Aymon ran his hand over the top of his short hair. "Do we usually keep tabs on the distribution of stardrives?"

"Obviously. But she's right that we can't watch everyone everywhere. Our information and hers might disagree due to her error."

"Are we even trying?" Aymon asked. "Because if we have big holes in our knowledge, I feel like we aren't."

"We have people across the Guild," Halen reassured. "And we pull as much information from ships computers as we can every time any ship comes into port. But there's real logistical problems to bugging a ship, or putting a man out there."

Aymon tapped his pen on his desk. "I don't like working in the dark."

"You've been lucky that the older Vaneik either didn't care about his own operational security, or didn't feel the need to hide things from you. You got complacent."

"He could have had plans going on that I didn't know about," Aymon said.

"Like what got him murdered?"

"Yeah. I think we need to investigate his wife."

"We investigated her as much as we investigated Thule, in terms of information gathering."

"But you never got close to her alone."

"Olms thinking that she was acting strange isn't much to go on. As far as I was aware, she was devoted to her husband," Halen said.

"Things change," Aymon said. "And it is a bit of a strong coincidence that her behavior changed right before Vaneik was murdered."

"I'll get people to keep as close of an eye on her as we can," Halen said. "Closer, even."

"Good. Speaking of intelligence, any updates?" It was obvious to both of them that Aymon was talking about Yan.

"If there had been any, you'd be the first to know."

"I just mean have there been any new strategies, plans, anything?"

"You're kept in the loop already," Halen said softly. "It's been a long time."

"Eight more months," Aymon said. "A year. That's when I'll call it."

"I'm not saying you should give up hope," Halen said. "I'm just saying that looking every second of every day for new news isn't going to get you anywhere."

"I know. How can people have simply vanished out of existence? They're not on any ship, they're not on any planet, they're not- ugh." Aymon stopped, then started again. "What ship goes two months without calling at some port or another?"

"There may be ports we don't know about," Halen cautioned. "You know that there are black stations we haven't mapped out."

"And these pirates know enough to only visit the ones that we conveniently haven't been able to track down? Their wealthy benefactor is somehow controlling them from a station that has so few charges or drugs passing on or off it that it doesn't make a blip in our radar? And people who have just made a fortune off of kidnapping a politician aren't going to go somewhere to spend it as fast as they can?"

"Or they could have had facial surgery, and wear contacts to disguise iris scans, and fingertip replacements," Halen said.

"I'm sorry, I'm just frustrated."

"I can tell," Halen said in a voice as dry as the desert.

Aymon leaned back in his chair, looking up behind him into Halen's face. It was a childish pose, almost funny. Halen put his hands on Aymon's shoulders.

"We'll find her, or she'll escape. I know it. Does the Emperor have anything to say?"

"I find that the Emperor has had very little good things to say to me recently. It's Council this and colonies that. Let the Council eat itself for all I care."

"Now that's not a way for a good leader to talk," Halen said, rubbing Aymon's shoulders.

The mystery of the missing stardrives was solved sooner than Aymon anticipated, and it immediately precipitated a crisis. It was approximately one week before bidding on stardrives would begin within the Guild. Aymon's phone, placed on his nightstand, was ringing in the middle of the night, something that only happened in a real emergency. He was curled up naked and alone in bed. Halen had left a while ago, retreating to his own quarters as was their custom. The shrill tone of the phone roused him from his sleep and he fumbled around in the dark, grabbing it. The light from the screen momentarily blinded him as he swiped to answer.

"Yan?" he mumbled. It was the only thing that he could think of that would cause him to be woken in the middle of the night.

"No, sir," an aide said, tinny sounding. Aymon was holding the phone a good distance away from his ear. His eardrums still felt rattled from the unpleasant wake up call. "There's trouble with the Guild."

"Does it really need to be dealt with now?" Aymon asked. Guild problems happened so slowly. Even in the fastest cases, ships still needed time to travel from one place to another.

"Vaswani Parks says you'll want to see this right away." Vaswani Parks was the head intelligence officer on everything concerning the Guild.

"Is someone going to die if I take fifteen minutes to shower?" Aymon asked.

"No, sir."

"Then I'll be in my office in twenty minutes."

"I'll let Parks know. Thank you, sir."

"Yeah," Aymon grumbled, then hung up the phone. He let it fall unceremoniously onto his bare chest, were it lay somewhat tilted over the thick raised scar that crossed his upper body. He took a moment to stare up at the dark ceiling. Lights from the clock ghosted red above him, and he watched them flicker in and out as the minutes changed. The red splotches refused to resolve into anything coherent, and his thoughts wandered. There had been a moment when the phone rang, in between being awake and dreaming, where he had been so sure that Yan had been found. He didn't have time to rest in bed, as much as he wanted to.

Aymon rolled out from under his covers, feet hitting the floor with a thump. He stumbled through the darkness into the kitchen, and he put coffee on to brew while he showered. He went back to the bathroom, and turned on all the lights as bright as they could go. He felt like one of the many slugs his brother used to catch and salt as a child, torturing them to death. He was being melodramatic, moaning about the bags under his eyes and the glare from the lights. For his shower, he turned the water on only cold, and he stood under it, biting his lip as the icicles hit him. When he was cold and clean, he got dressed and drank his coffee. Black. As with everything, it was a new exercise in self deprivation. He had been "into that" lately in a way that he hadn't since he had been much younger. Old habits died hard, he supposed.

If he found his life bouncing between moments of hedonism and moments of asceticism, who was to say which one was better? In any event, his personal business had no relationship to his professional life, and that was what he needed to deal with now.

He made his way to his office. The halls of Stonecourt were absolutely deserted at this time of night. Except, he noticed, for one person in particular who should have been at home in bed. A little tracker on his phone showed him the location of his two remaining apprentices at all times. He wasn't letting Kino get away with vanishing from his radar so easily nowadays. How she had managed in the past to slip away from his trained professionals was a mystery, but since she had usually returned safe and never got into trouble, he hadn't been too concerned. That was in the peaceful time between his trip to the front and Yan's disappearance, though. Now he panicked at the thought of her being out of his sphere of influence.

It wasn't Kino who was awake lurking in Stonecourt, though. It was Sid, who seemed to have become allergic to regular bedtimes. Aymon sent him a message as he walked.

> Join me in my office.

< k

Though he hesitated to call that response 'classic Sid', it was certainly in character for him. Aymon arrived at his office and the guard outside saluted him. Vaswani Parks was waiting in the waiting room outside, her black hair cut around her head short enough to show her massive gold earrings. As a native of Almanzil, she brought with her to Emerri the heavy jewelry preferred by everyone on her home planet. She was armed with a briefcase and computer that Aymon was sure was going to be used to torture him to death with excessive detail on whatever the present crisis was.

Surprisingly, Halen was nowhere to be seen. He turned to the aide lurking near Parks. "Where's Halen," he asked.

"Off duty," the aide said. "Do you need him?"

He should let Halen rest. "No, I was just wondering." Halen was usually alerted when anything happened that required Aymon's attention. Although the depth of their relationship was private, it was well known that Aymon trusted Halen and wanted to have him around during important moments.

"I don't think we've ever had occasion to meet so early, Director Parks," Aymon said.

"I'm sorry to have woken you up, First Sandreas, but I do think you need to see this as soon as possible. Shall we go in?"

"I'm waiting for my apprentice to arrive. He should be here in a moment," Aymon said.

"Does he sleep at Stonecourt?" Parks asked.

"I'm beginning to suspect that he does not sleep," Aymon said wryly. They heard Sid's approach. He was never quiet when he walked, probably because he didn't know how loud he was being. It was that, or he wanted to punish everyone for existing around him. Either could have been true, and both were funny. Maybe he shouldn't be so uncharitable about his apprentices. Sid was getting better. He had certainly thrown himself headfirst into the work at hand over the past few months. Even if that was only to convince Aymon to let him go fight pirates, it was still admirable how well he had turned his act around. Perhaps that month or so of punishment had been good for him. They had never really discussed his coping with it during or after, aside from the very first day when they had gone to the Emperor. It was strange. Aymon spent by far the most time with Kino, even though Kino was the most emotionally distant of all his apprentices. He had to work extra hard to break through her shell, but he wasn't successful. Kino remained an enigma, and in devoting so much time to her, he had left his other apprentices… apprentice… on the back burner.

He smiled at Sid when he entered the room. Sid had bags under his eyes, and his tattoo was partially showing. He was still getting used to raising and lowering the designs with any detail. Early attempts had been so clumsy that Aymon had almost forbidden him to go out in public with it showing at all, but if Sid wanted to embarrass himself, Aymon couldn't really stop him. Now Sid just had it set in a large, flat spiral, the line about the width of his finger, tracing out from the center of his head to the edges. There was room for improvement, but at least it was made with intent. He still found it difficult to believe, months later, that not only had Sid gotten this tattoo, but Yan had allowed him to do it.

Aymon opened up his office and invited Parks and Sid inside. "Were you planning on going to bed at any point, Sid?" Aymon asked.

Sid brushed past him without answering and took up his usual seat on one of the couches. Aymon gestured for Parks to take a seat as well. Aymon sat down on the armchair.

"So, what is it that you so urgently needed to tell me?" Aymon asked, leaning forward slightly. Parks pulled a small projector from her briefcase and set it on the table. She opened her computer and activated it with the things that she wanted to show. Above the coffee table, the projection of a giant rotating rock appeared.

"What is that?" Sid asked, peering intently at it.

"This is the problem," Parks said. "We discovered plans for this recently. Several ships within the Guild had this same set of heavily encrypted files on them, and we had been trying to crack the encryption for about a month. Then we had a stroke of luck. Someone on the Valiant left their key where we could find it."

"Key?" Aymon asked.

"Data stick with the necessary information to decrypt the files."

"Who left it?" Aymon asked, thinking that if this was such a big deal, why would anyone be stupid enough to leave their important data right out in the open.

"Ah, well, we were suspicious about a meeting between Nomar Thule and several families within the Guild. So when several ships congregated at Zhani station to hold this meeting, we had agents board each of the ships and search the cabins of the people who attended. We got lucky."

"Sounds risky," Sid said.

"Perhaps, but it was worth it."

"And what does this all mean?" Aymon said. He was getting hung up on the details, but the ramifications were more important. "You decrypted some Guild files about a ship. So?"

"This isn't any ship," Parks said. She clicked around on her computer for a second. "Look at this for scale."

The first rock on the projection scooted over, and a much larger rock appeared next to it. The holographic projection resolved into familiar shape. Continents, oceans, ice caps, mountain ranges, it was the planet Emerri. The first rock was about a quarter of its size.

"They want to build a really big ship? What's the problem?" Sid asked. Aymon gritted his teeth, not at Sid's question, just at the implications of the projection.

"There's usually an upper limit to the mass of ships," Parks said. "Even when hauling freight, ships can't mass more than a large asteroid. Stardrives just can't handle it. This ship is the size of a large moon."

"So they're building a station?" Sid asked, confused.

"No, they're going to make it mobile." Parks clicked on her computer again, and the surface of the ship became transparent, showing a spinning set of rings built inside the inner layer, each rotating counter to the ones next to it. Further inside the ship, four lights lit up. "Those are the four stardrives they're planning to fit this with."

"Can you even do that?" Sid asked. "I always thought there was a reason that ships didn't have more than one stardrive."

"Complicated question. Stardrives don't like to work together. The way they warp space around them means that historically we haven't managed to make them engage together, and the few times we've tried, things have ended badly."

"So, what makes this any different?" Aymon asked, leaning back onto his chair. "If all that's going to happen is that Vaneik blows his investments or self away by fooling with stardrives, I fail to see what's so urgent."

"Unfortunately, they already have a working prototype," Parks said. "Take a look at this." She cleared the projection of the ship and Emerri and replaced it with a flat video, hovering in the air above the table. Tinny voices sounded from the speakers. The video was showing a ship, or possibly just an asteroid, floating quietly in space. The people talking in the video were calling out instructions and a countdown. Clearly they were about to watch a ship with two stardrives engage at once. Aymon wondered who exactly had provided these drives, but that wasn't his main concern as he watched the video. The countdown ended and the asteroid jumped away, just vanishing out of space. There was a general muttering of apprehension in the voice recording, and then another countdown. The ship which was the perspective of the video then jumped, the stars blinking out and into different positions. As the camera struggled to focus in empty space everyone waited with bated breath. Then the image resolved into the asteroid, sitting as peacefully as it had in the other area of space. There was a massive cheer. Parks cut the video off.

"Oh, that is bad," Aymon said. "That was just two drives?"

"Yes. They're old ones, in case you were wondering. They came off of ships who won the bidding last year for new drives."

"So this was being planned even under Ungarti?"

"It's technically not against any rule for the Guild to build ships," Parks said. "He may have been doing it with the best of intentions. But yes, at least the plans were commissioned under his watch."

"And who exactly made these plans?"

"We're still working on figuring that out. All names are code names even in these documents."

"Very strange that they really don't want us to find out who built this."

"I agree. We're working on it," Parks said.

Aymon leaned forward again. "How real is this?"

"In terms of what?"


"We have reason to believe it's mostly finished. At the very least…" She put the projection of the ship back up. "It probably looks like this." The outer layer of rock was once again transparent, and just a single ring rotated near the pole of the massive body.

"So, habitable but not complete?"

"Exactly. So many parts from ships are prefab, since ships are almost always under construction. It wouldn't be difficult at all to set up just one ring the size of a normal ship on this," Parks said. "And we've seen some of the work orders and purchases."

"Who is building this?"

"Most of the labor can be done by robots: the digging and building and such. There's probably a skeleton crew of volunteers from within the Guild."

"Who in the Guild is actually involved?"

"Families with whom Nomar Thule has cultivated close relationships. Most people don't know about this."

Aymon scratched his chin. He hadn't had time to shave, so it was itchy with stubble. "What kind of power play is this, exactly?"

"If this were Ungarti, I'd say it was an attempt to show that the Guild is a civilization in its own right. After all, that could house the population of a whole colony, once it was finished."

"But under Thule, and Wil?" Aymon asked. Sid watched Parks, staring at her as she thought about it.

"For Thule, this is definitely a way to consolidate his power within the Guild. Once this is complete, it will be the biggest, fastest, and most powerful ship in the entire Guild."

"Fastest?" Sid asked.

"Stardrives can jump different distances based on many factors: the mass of what they're carrying, their age, and what spacers think of as the drive's temperament."

"But with a larger ship, wouldn't it be slower?" Sid asked.

"Based on our estimates about the mass, this ship would be able to run with three stardrives. They're putting on four. Though four hasn't yet been tested, as far as I know, if each stardrive 'thinks' that it's taking less than a full load, it should be able to jump farther. And it would be four brand new drives. All new ships have that advantage."

"And what is Wil getting out of this?" Aymon asked. He suspected that for the younger Vaneik, it was as much of a giant dick measuring contest as much as anything, but he had to ask the professional opinion.

"Since he's been so quiet recently, it's hard to know. It's clear to everyone that he is not the real power in this regime. May I make a comment?" Parks asked.

"Of course."

"I suspect that if Thule is allowed to run unchecked, Wil Vaneik will not be long for this life."

"I don't doubt it," Aymon said. "Thule is-"

"A murderer," Sid broke in.

"Yes," Aymon said.

"We're still looking for solid evidence on that," Parks said. "If we find anything, we'll let you know right away."

Aymon nodded. "Has the Guild beefed up their security, or are we just monumentally unlucky in finding out about all of this until it's well underway."

"They've done an excellent job of keeping it secret so far," Parks admitted. "It's clear to me that Thule has been in on this project from the beginning, even when Ungarti was Guildmaster. Since he was personally responsible for the Guild's overall finances, he was able to cook the books and hide some of this evidence."

"But Olms didn't know?"

"We don't know. I know she was the one who brought the stardrives to your attention in the first place. Did she seem dishonest at the time?" Parks asked. Aymon wished Halen were here, he could give a more solid answer to that question.

"She seemed angry and afraid. She mentioned that Thule was trying to take revenge on her. I don't know how much that would have to do with this."

"I would think that Ungarti wouldn't hide things from one apprentice and not the other, so if I had to guess I would assume she knew. But it's interesting that she would have a change of heart about this without telling you directly."

"Do you think she's trustworthy?"

"She's a woman with her own goals," Parks said. "In this case, her goals and yours happen to line up closely enough that she could feed you information."

"She offered to give more, but she hasn't ended up telling us anything."

"That may have just been an excuse to tell you things she already knew, at times that were convenient for her." Parks half shrugged. "She's not important right now. I think that she could be a valuable ally, especially if she is right about Thule's intentions toward her."

"I'd like to get her back on Emerri," Aymon said. "Peacefully. Uncoerced."

"We'll get on that," Parks said.

"Don't scare her. And if you can find out what she knows and when she knew it without bringing her here, that would be fine too."

"You have a soft spot for her?" Sid asked. His voice didn’t give any indication as to what he meant to imply by that. Aymon was tempted to smack him upside his bald head. Did he not understand tact, and what was appropriate to be said in a professional conversation about a serious topic?

"No, I just don't want to lose one of the few people in the Guild who has any goodwill towards us at this moment," Aymon said.

"If it's any consolation," Parks said, "we have no reason to believe that Thule has any intentions other than his own consolidation of power within the Guild."

"And by consolidation of power, you mean declaring himself ruler for life?" Sid asked.

"That is probably the end goal, yes," Parks said. "But he hasn't shown open hostility toward the Empire."

"Of course he hasn't." Aymon's voice was weary. The lack of sleep was beginning to hit him again. A coffee and cold shower could only do so much. "But he will."

"You don't think his ties to the Academy are strong enough to keep him, uh, under control?" Sid asked.

"I think that Academy training is beginning to mean a lot less than it should," Aymon said. "Just within this past year I've dealt with a rogue governor who was trained at the Academy. And Thule has already shown he has a penchant for murder. Maybe it's because his mentor wasn't a sensitive."

"Is that really so important?" Sid asked.

"Yes," Aymon said, giving him a pointed look. How could Sid not understand the importance of passing on knowledge and tradition to those who were most compatible? Since so few sensitives ever had children of their own, taking apprentices was a key event. And in Aymon's case, it was paramount that the line of succession remain intact.

"Then why was Vaneik given apprentices in the first place?" Sid asked.

"I thought it was an acceptable tradeoff at the time," Aymon said. "The Guild has always run better with a sensitive at the head, so it was worth it to place some in appropriate positions."

"Well it isn't doing so well now, and Thule is in charge." Sid took off his glasses and rubbed them on his shirt for a second, as if daring anyone to say anything to him while he couldn't hear. Both Aymon and Parks waited for him to put them back on. Aymon tapped his foot.

"In a way," Parks said. "But he's got a long way to go before he'll really take over."

"Alright. That's all very interesting, but I need your suggestions on what to actually do," Aymon said. "You know the inner state of the Guild better than I do." He looked at Parks as she consulted her computer for a second.

"There's as many options as there are stars," Parks said. "Do you want to get rid of Thule?"

Aymon rubbed the back of his neck, feeling how tense he was as his hand pressed down on various knots he hadn't realized were there.

"Get rid of?" Sid asked.

"It might come down to that," Aymon said. "But I want to avoid destabilizing the whole Guild. Any leadership change right now would probably create even more chaos. Do you know how they're planning on getting the stardrives away from the public bidding?"

"It's most likely that they'll have certain families who are contributing to this project win bids on the stardrives," Parks said. "Since you announced how many there would be, they have to."

"Heh. Doesn't seem to have made much a dent in their plans."

"No, it hasn't."

Aymon thought for a long second. "Can we destroy the ship? Make it look like an accident on one of its first few trips out? Maybe even before it becomes public?"

Parks nodded. "We can sabotage the drives."

"No, Thule will probably check them," Aymon said, thinking of Halen's stardrive experience. It seemed like any sensitive with a connection to space should make it their mission to understand stardrives.

"Can he do that?" Sid asked.

Parks clicked around on her computer again. "Thule took two classes in stardrive technology while at the Academy. It wasn't a full certification, but he might be able to tell if something was dramatically wrong with one."

"So could the ship itself be compromised? Maybe the connection between the stardrives? Cause it to missfire?" Aymon asked.

"Yes. We could arrange that," Parks said. "Though the maiden voyage may be public rather than private."

"That would be unfortunate. Can you make a media blackout?"

"Media? Of course. But Guild captains and anyone else who knew about it? They're unlikely to stay quiet," Parks said.

"It would be really idiotic of them not to test it before they show it off to the public," Sid said. "You'd think the chances of it going wrong, even without you guaranteeing it, would be too high to risk the embarrassment."

"The Guild is currently under the care of a self centered child, chaperoned by a murderer," Aymon said. "I don't know if there's a worse combination for unpredictability and public mistakes." He was grumpy because it was the middle of the night.

"Is it really a good idea to destroy their ship? What if there are people on it?" Sid asked. Aymon looked at him with disdain.

"During their testing phase they probably won't crew the ship," Parks said. "It would be suicidal."

"You never know. But it's worth it," Aymon said. "I do have one other question before I let you go, and that will probably decide a lot of policy moving forward."

"Of course," Parks said. "Happy to answer, if I know it."

"Where is this thing being built?"

A note from javert

What's the Guild up to? Stupidity, that's what. Though there's still /technically/ a mystery as to what the motive to murder Vaneik is, I feel like it's a fairly easy guess at this point.

Yuuni is fun to write. Even though Aymon keeps comparing her to Yan just because they're young spacer sensitives, she's like the complete opposite of Yan in almost every aspect. I mean, if there's three adjectives I wouldn't use to describe Yan, they would be bubbly, easily angered, and scheming- Yuuni Olms is all of those.

I just realized both their names start with Y >.> I have a real problem with naming characters the same letter. Someday maybe Sid, Sylva, and Sandreas are all going to be in the same scene and it will be chaotic. (I should have put another S word at the end of that sentence. there's a lot of sibilance :p )

The epigraph is loosely inspired in phrasing by the classic bible verse 'though I walk through the valley of death' etc. I try not to outright reference bible shit tooooooo often b/c I know it gets annoying, but I wanted something that was thematically connected to the concept of being like. watched all the time as Aymon tries to watch the Guild. If you expected a conclusion to the Red King storyline, well, sorry :^)

Please consider leaving me a review or rating, they help me know what you like and dislike in this story. 

I'll see you on Wednesday!

edit 9/30/19 - fixed formatting

10/4/19 - added chapter title

About the author


Bio: hi I'm noodle, I studied aeronautical engineering in college, then I taught high school math. now I'm [redacted] and [remainder of message lost].

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