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Chapter Twenty-Five

Carann, Royal Palace

The flashing of a certain small light on his wrist comm was an alert that summoned Publius Vedrans Quarinis to appear before the secret holoprojector in its chamber within his office. No sooner had the door slid shut behind him, and he had fallen into a bow with his clenched fist held to his heart, than the projector hummed to life and the image of a man formed in the air above it. To Quarinis’s surprise, and no small discomfort, he found himself facing not the Emperor’s regal form, but the cloaked body and masked face of the Alaelam Adept, Al’Aymar Alaen.

“You do not appear to be pleased to see me, Ambassador,” Al’Aymar said as Quarinis hastily rose, a wry note entering his smooth voice.

“I intend no offense, Alaen,” Quarinis said, quickly regaining his composure. “I was simply surprised, seeing as this is, after all, a private channel that is only used by the Emperor and myself and I was, therefore, expecting His Majesty.”

“The Emperor is in the field,” the Adept said. “He and Admiral Decimus press their advantages against my former comrades. A great battle is being fought at Bahrina even as we speak. I, therefore, have been tasked with giving you an important message – and warning.”

“Warning?” Quarinis asked, a sudden stab of uncertainty piercing his chest.

“You have been sloppy, Ambassador,” Al’Aymar said. “The trail connecting you to the Commander was cold, but not cold enough – someone pursues it. The cybernetics lab was entered and compromised a short time ago. Reports received when the laboratory self-destructed indicate that the intruders recovered information regarding which Imperial base supplied the Commander’s ships and weapons. It is likely that they are headed there even now. That base’s records contain a detailed account of the project – including the one who ordered it.”

“I see,” Quarinis said; dread was rising in him now, but he was careful not to allow it to show on his face. He would not show weakness – not to this creature. “And what, exactly, does the Emperor expect me to do about it? I cannot leave my post here without arousing suspicion, nor do I have the authority to order the base’s records purged.”

“For now, you are to do nothing,” Al’Aymar told him sharply. “I, however, have been dispatched to the base in case our intruders should arrive there. It is for your mistake that I have been called away from the front, Quarinis – I am denied personal revenge against the Conclave to cover for you. Do not forget it! But have no fear, Ambassador. I will deal with our spies myself. Your error will have been corrected.”

“You seem quite confident in your abilities,” Quarinis observed.

“Experience has taught me that there are few – very few – in this galaxy who can stand against me,” Al’Aymar said. “However, the Emperor has instructed me to tell you that, in the remote possibility the intruders elude me, you are to know that you will have been compromised. And, if they are in the employ of the Dozen Stars as the Emperor surmises, then your position at their court will be in jeopardy. You are to make preparations to do what you must to ensure that you are not taken captive, and that the Empire’s interests are protected.”

“I understand,” Quarinis said. “You may inform the Emperor that, as always, he can rely on me.”

“Indeed?” Al’Aymar asked, his tone wry once more. “See that he can. And perhaps, if these intruders can be dealt with quickly, I will be able to return to the front before battle is done and claim some measure of vengeance for myself. You have your orders, Quarinis. Carry them out.”

The Adept’s image flickered and vanished. Quarinis remained standing in the dark room for several long moments, deep in thought, then walked back out into his main office and summoned his praetorians to him. “I have received warning that our work here may soon be endangered,” he told them without preamble; their metal faces regarded him impassively. “Should that time come, this is what you must do…”

///

Aboard the bridge of the Right to Rule, Duke Respen clapped his hand to Darius’s shoulder, grinning fiercely. “Well done,” he said. “I shall have to convey my compliments to Duke Naudar for the loan of you! You were right, Darius – Artakane is weak. She will not be able to stand against me when the Baron’s life hangs in the balance. She will capitulate, and then the throne will be mine, and you will be rewarded.”

Respen seemed more animated and pleased now than Darius had ever seen him, but the heir to Sakran duchy could only feel sick inside at the treachery he had been a part of. More than a part of; that he had suggested. At his father’s instruction, but still, the act – and the guilt – was his. “Thank you, your grace,” he managed to say. “And… forgive me, but what about your threat to the people of Tantos III? Would you really follow through on that if she doesn’t fall in line?”

The Duke looked vaguely irritated now and waved the question away with an airy gesture. “Does it really matter?” he asked. “I have the pretender’s father; that’s the leverage I need. It won’t come to a need to destroy Tantos. But yes, Darius – if she still refuses after I have taken her father’s head from his shoulders, then I will have all of Tantos Duchy – not merely the planet – slaughtered until she relents! Aestera was my cousin – the throne of the Dozen Stars is mine by right. It should have been mine when she died, but the council refused me. I will not be refused now, even if the Lord should personally attempt to deny me! I have been promised…” Respen’s voice trailed off, almost as if he realized he had let slip something he shouldn’t have. “You are a fine knight, Darius,” he said finally. “I would be glad to have you – and your siblings – by my side. So long as you do not stand in my way. Will you?”

“No, your grace,” Darius said stiffly.

“Excellent,” Respen said, turning away from him and walking over to a viewport, through which the planet Katanes could be seen receding into the distance. “Now, then, I suppose you – and your father – will want to be appraised of our next move.”

“That would be helpful, your grace,” Darius said.

“Baron ast Katanes is already being prepared for transport to Aurann,” Respen said. “There he will be imprisoned in my citadel, as I promised Artakane. There will be no recovery or escape from there. I have summoned the remainder of my fleet from Aurann to take up positions around Tantos III – if Mardoban does not acknowledge Aestera’s surrender, then we must crush him and his allies so soundly that they never attempt to defy me again. I shall be returning to Tantos as well to take personal command; you, I assume, will be accompanying us to report to Naudar that all went according to his plan – yes, I have no doubt that the plan to capture the Baron was Naudar’s idea. I do not object to his schemes, so long as he schemes for me. And when Artakane has surrendered and the battle is done, I will go to Carann, to take my rightful place upon the throne.” He sighed longingly. “It’s within my grasp, Darius – the throne that should have been mine long ago. Within a week, my destiny shall be fulfilled.” He gestured to Darius. “You are dismissed.”

“Thank you, your grace,” Darius said, giving a half bow and resisting the urge to flee from the bridge. But no; it wouldn’t do to let Respen see just how his words had shaken him. Managing to maintain his stride at a determined but dignified pace, Darius left the bridge and took a lift down to the cabin that he and his siblings had been given to share. Galen and Tariti awaited him there, looking expectant.

“Well?” Tariti asked. “Did it work?”

“Yes,” Darius said heavily. “Respen sent his message. I was there when he did it. I saw Arta’s face – Father was right. This hurt her in a way nothing we’ve done before has.”

“Well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?” Tariti said. “It sounds like we’ve all but won.”

Darius shook his head. “No, Tariti,” he said. “Whatever Respen thinks, I don’t think Arta is going to give up without a fight, no matter who he threatens. And there’s more.” He quickly filled them both in on Respen’s threat to Tantos III and his determination to carry it out.

Tariti opened her mouth and closed it again, then shook her head in disbelief. “He must be exaggerating,” she said. “He’s just saying that as a threat against anyone who’d stand up to him. He wouldn’t really destroy a whole planet, would he?”

“He would,” Galen said quietly, staring at his hands. “He’d do anything to win, I can tell. I know what that’s like, and at this point, there’s nothing I’d put past him.”

“Well, then, what are we going to do about it?” Tariti asked. “Tell Father? See if he can talk reason into Respen?”

“I don’t think that’ll work,” Darius said. “Father’s counting on Respen and Sateira burning themselves out quickly, so he can step in and be a hero for restoring order. Maybe that would work in the long run, but it wouldn’t do anything to help all the people Respen kills in the meantime, will it?” He shook his head. “Do you remember during the fight on the platform? What Arta said about the Empire pulling Father’s strings?”

“She was just making it up,” Galen said. “Trying to get under your skin.”

“No,” Darius said. “I think she was right.” He told them then about the conversation he’d overheard back on Tantos III between their father and a faceless holographic figure promising him power, at the expense not only of the young queen but also his own allies. “And just now, Respen let something slip about how he was ‘promised’ the throne. Promised by who? Arta’s right, I’m sure of it. Someone is playing a game with us, and we’re the pieces. And if it is the Empire, then there may not be a Dozen Stars left for anyone to rule when they’re done.”

“We always knew Respen was a mad dog,” Tariti said. “But not how mad. And if what you’re saying is true, then maybe Father can’t be trusted either. Darius, this scares me. Everything you say feels true – it feels like this whole thing is spinning out of control. But what can we do?”

“We can’t get to Respen,” Darius said. “He’s always surrounded by Aurannian knights and troopers. And even if we could, he’s not the root of the problem.” He drew a deep breath. “There is something we can do, I think, that might be able to help stop the madness before it tears the Dozen Stars apart. But it will take all three of us.”

“I’m with you, Darius,” Tariti said. “The two of us, back-to-back – always.”

“Galen,” Darius said reprovingly, looking over at where his younger brother stood in the cabin’s corner. “I need your answer on this.”

Galen sighed. “Whatever you’re planning, I don’t think it will work,” he said. “Respen won’t give up while there’s still fight in him. I feel like I understand him a little – better than you, anyway. That same need to win? I’ve felt it too – how could I not, growing up in your shadow? After Arta beat me at the tournament, I had to get back at her, no matter what. I still feel that. But,” he paused and drew a deep breath, as if whatever he was about to say was incredibly hard for him to admit, “the Empire is the enemy of our entire Kingdom. If it really is using us, my revenge isn’t worth that. And the ast Sakrans stand together – always. What do you need?”

“Thank you,” Darius said, placing his hands on both his siblings’ shoulders. “It’s too late to reach Baron ast Katanes – he’s probably already been shipped off to Aurann. But we’re going back to Tantos III with Respen. And once we’re there, we’ll be in position to act.”

///

Arta sat alone at the palace’s dining table, staring at the hands folded in her lap, and felt numb inside. She was alone; Danash was in the infirmary, Shiran was resting, and Karani was in the training hall, apparently taking out her pain on a series of unfortunate mechs. Arta’s guards were waiting outside the dining room, by her orders, and Latharna had vanished to somewhere in the palace. All of that was fine by Arta. For now, she wanted to be alone.

She had failed – as a queen, as a commander, as a daughter. She’d let Darius trick her, foolishly thinking that if she beat him and his siblings in a duel, it would be enough to make Respen’s forces go away! How sure she’d been in the moment, and how foolish she felt looking back on it now. All she’d done was blind herself to the possibility that she was being tricked, and now the man who had raised her – her father not by blood, but in every other way that mattered – was in the hands of the cruelest and most ruthless of her enemies.

Her options were bleak. She could surrender her crown, give the Dozen Stars over to Respen and go hide for the rest of her life in a convent somewhere – but that would mean putting her people at the mercy of a tyrant who would burn whole planets to get his way. How long would the Dozen Stars survive with a monster like that on the throne? And if it survived, what would it become? Or… or she could continue fighting and let the Baron die, and then risk the lives of the people of Tantos III in Respen’s retaliation. Maybe she and Mardoban could defeat him before he managed to inflict civilian casualties on a large scale – maybe. And maybe not. Was risking millions of lives on a “maybe” something she could countenance?

Or, perhaps, she could avoid Respen’s trap entirely – go to Aurann, break into the Citadel, and get her father out. But could she manage that in a week? Aurann was a harsh, desolate world, its Citadel reputed to be a fortress? And if she failed, the Baron’s life would probably be forfeit anyway.

She’d gone over plans and counterplans in her head; she’d cried, and she’d raged. But she was no closer to a solution now than she’d been when she began. And so, she just sat here now, letting the numbness spread through her.

The sound of footsteps drew Arta from her dark thoughts. Looking up, she saw Latharna enter the dining room, a look of concern on her face; she was carrying something cradled in her arms. “Master Danash said you were here,” she said, taking a seat.

“I don’t want to talk to anyone right now,” Arta said, turning away.

“I’m not here to talk,” Latharna said. “Master Danash also helped me find this.” She set the object she’d been carrying on the table, and Arta saw it was a small harp. “He had a mech take me up to the music room. I didn’t know anyone in your family were musicians.”

“None of the three of us are,” Arta said quietly. “My grandmother was, though. The Baron’s mother, that is. She collected instruments of all kinds. We lend them out, sometimes. For concerts and things. Sometimes to the local university.” She looked up at Latharna. “So, you play the harp, too? An ambassador’s aide who can duel and play music. Is there anything you can’t do?”

“I can’t make you feel better, apparently,” Latharna said. “But maybe I can help a little bit.” Taking up the harp in her arms, she began to strum the strings with deft skill; a melody of heartbreaking beauty filled the room, and Arta watched, transfixed. Then Latharna began to sing. It wasn’t an arrangement Arta had ever heard before, but she knew the lyrics well – most people did. It was an adaptation of one of the most famous passages from the Canon – the Prophet’s Lament for Terra. It was a song of grief and terrible sorrow, the song of a people torn from their home world and condemned to wander among the stars – and yet there was an underlying strain of hope as well, that perhaps, on some distant day, Terra might be found again and the harmony of the cosmos restored.

Arta didn’t know how long she sat there, listening to Latharna’s music; when the song ended, tears were streaming down the young queen’s face. Latharna put the harp aside, and no sooner had she done so than Arta leaned over and wrapped her in a tight embrace, burying her head in her shoulder. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you.”

Pulling back, her hand brushed her side, and she paused in sudden realization. Frantically, she reached into a pocket in her tunic and pulled out the small object she’d felt there – a tiny drive that Latharna had given her before they’d left Carann, which had been forgotten amidst all the chaos, until now. Her eyes widened. “Latharna,” she breathed, “do you realize what this is?”

“It’s the drive Ambassador Preas gave me,” Latharna breathed, “the one containing…”

“Contact information for rebels on Aurann,” Arta said. “People who are fighting Respen – people who will know how to get into the Citadel! With this, we can arrange a meeting, and, and…”

“And rescue your father before the Duke has him executed,” Latharna fished.

Grinning fiercely through her tears, Arta wrapped Latharna in an embrace again. “You’ve given me a chance, Latharna,” she said. “You’ve given me hope.” Standing, Arta began to pace back and forth. “We’ll need to leave right away to make sure we get there on time; we can take Artax’s Glory, send a message to the rebels from the ship, arrange a time and place for a meeting. I’ll need to bring my guards; Karani would kill me if she didn’t get to come. And Shiran. He can help us get past Respen’s defenses – I remember Midaia could disable technology, sneak past it. I don’t know how to do that – but Shiran does. And… and…”

“And me,” Latharna said, putting a hand on Arta’s shoulder. “If you’re going into danger, I’m going with you. You can’t keep me away.”

“I can’t ask that of you, Latharna,” Arta said, turning to face her. “You’re not my subject; I can’t give you orders. Having you go with me to Tantos was bad enough; I can’t ask a Realtran diplomatic aide to go marching with me into the very heart of Aurann. If you got killed… no, I can’t let you do that.”

Latharna took Arta’s hands in hers. “You can,” she said. “You need someone to watch your back, and I’m better than anyone else you have. And you’re trying to save someone you love; I can’t turn my back on that. And because I -” Latharna seemed like she was about to say something else, but the words never came, and she finally shook her head.

Arta sighed. “All right,” she said. “You win. But if you’re going to infiltrate an enemy planet with me, you can’t do that just as Latharna Dhenloc of Realtran. You’ve already fought with me three times, for no benefit to yourself. I don’t think I should let that go unrecognized. You deserve more.” Drawing her dueling sword, she held it up before her. “I’ve never done this before, but I think I know the basic idea. Kneel. Please.”

Latharna’s eyes widened as she realized what was about to happen; stepping back, she sank to her knees. “Do you, Latharna Dhenloc,” Arta said, “promise on your honor and in the Lord’s name to dedicate yourself to the ideals to chivalry, to serve justice and do mercy, to pledge yourself to the throne of the Dozen Stars until the throne should release you or death claim you?”

“I swear,” Latharna said, voice breaking. “In the Lord’s name.”

Arta tapped her sword first on Latharna’s right shoulder, then the left. “Then I bid you rise, Lady Latharna Dhenloc, Knight of the Realm, Champion of the Queen.”

Latharna stood slowly, an expression of shock and wonder in her eyes, and then she shook her head in amazement. “A Realtran knight of the Dozen Stars,” she said. “Somehow, I’m not entirely sure Ambassador Preas would approve.”

“If Ceana doesn’t like it,” Arta said, “she can take it up with me. Now, let’s find Karani and Shiran and get moving. We don’t have much time.”

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