Authors: Colin Alexander
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Space Opera
Tyaromon smiled at me. His frown had been less intimidating. “Those are developments that should concern
, freebooter, not you. Yes, both of them were active in helping me to extend Kaaran’s support for the empire, and their loss is a blow against that policy. I will not pretend otherwise. Politics is like that, you know, gentle pressures, carefully selected assassinations, a well-timed betrayal. In spite of which, Valaria’s tie to Duromond will take place the day after tomorrow, to the intense disappointment of certain kvenningari.”
“I don’t see how you can just shrug off a loss like that.”
“I believe I said it was unfortunate,” he replied. “However, there is usually a way to turn most any situation to advantage. It’s just a matter of knowing how to do it. Never forget, a person, any person, is just a means to an end. That is true for advisors, friends, sons, even daughters. Those who believe otherwise are fools.”
I dimly remembered once hearing a statement about people as means to an end. I don’t believe it was expressed the way Tyaromon put it. “That sounds like something I would expect to hear from Carrillacki.”
“Most certainly,” Tyaromon answered. “And why not? They are skilled practitioners of political art and all the more deadly as enemies because of it. They were not always one of the Great Kvenningari, you know. Once they were no more than a splinter, no different than thousands of others. Now they are a force that may swallow the whole empire. That did not happen by accident. By my doing, Kaaran now occupies a vital position in opposition to them. You have my word that I will find a way to use the situation, any situation, to further our position.”
From the way he spoke, I wondered if he thought that I was an agent for one of the kvenningari. He seemed to take pleasure in demonstrating how his plans would come to fruition in spite of his enemies’ opposition and foreknowledge. He was careful, even so. For all that he said, there wasn’t one concrete issue that a spy could make use of. I was not a spy, however, and his gloating was premature to me because I knew that there was another factor involved. Haranyi. The commander of a Praetorian guard always had great power and influence. How much more power did Haranyi hold now that two of Tyaromon’s top advisors were gone? Where was Haranyi’s first loyalty? Almost, I said something to Tyaromon. Almost. In the end, I couldn’t. I wouldn’t, not unless Angel brought me more than the circumstantial evidence I had. Instead of warning him about the treachery in his house, I offered a banal comment about being concerned for no reason. Tyaromon accepted that, as I’m sure he accepted other polite fictions, and we parted. I was drenched in sweat.
A geological epoch later, I saw Angel standing in the doorway to the courtyard. When our eyes met, he raised his mug in salute, the signal that we should talk. I worked my way out of the courtyard. Angel was halfway down the hallway, looking out through a tall glass wall. Two moons shone above the trees. The glass had been treated to reflect none of the background light. It was as though we could step right out into the moonlight.
“Did you find anything?” My voice sounded harsh in my ears.
“Dammit, Angel, how can it be maybe? Either you did or you didn’t.”
Angel grinned and scratched at his beard. “I saw Gyro and he says he knows something. We were even able to agree on a price. But things weren’t private enough for him. He’s off tomorrow night, so we’ll meet then, while they have their bash here.”
“Shit, that’s the night before the ceremony!” I told him the thoughts that my talk with Tyaromon had sparked. He gave a low whistle in response. “You see what I’m worried about?” I asked. “Tyaromon thinks he has it won, but if Haranyi has sold out, well, I’d expect him to strike at the ceremony.”
Angel was thoughtful for a moment. Then he spoke. “The question is, Danny-boy, if that’s so, whose side are we on?”
“Well, I can’t see any of us, Jaenna included, have much use for Tyaromon. Jaenna is attached to Haranyi.”
“True. But she is also attached to her brother.” No kidding. Did Danny Troy figure anywhere in the equation anymore? “Anyway, I don’t want to be around if she finds out that it was Haranyi who planted Norboh. Also, what happens to our safe conduct and our deal at Lussern if the empire hears we sided against Tyaromon?”
“Good questions, boss.” Angel had a wicked grin that went from ear to ear. “That’s why you’re the captain, so you can make those calls.”
“Thank you so much, Angel. See if I ever go drinking with you in Cleveland again.”
We did agree that he would meet Gyro as planned. Jaenna and I would excuse ourselves early and meet Angel at the suite at local midnight.
he next day dragged badly. I had recovered from my wormhole lag, so I wasn’t able to sleep away half the day. I declined offers from Jaenna and Valaria to go sightseeing because I didn’t think my psyche was up to it. Instead, I watched the preparations for the ceremony. All around me, the Residence was as busy as the host stadium on Super Bowl Sunday. A huge auditorium, used only for special events such as the appointment of a new governor, was opened and cleaned. There was a steady stream of vehicles to and from the spaceport, bringing in dignitary after dignitary. In the meantime, the household prepared for the final night’s celebration, which promised to dwarf any of the earlier parties. The main body of the Duromondi arrived, enough Srihani to take up one whole wing of the Residence. Among them, somewhere, was the girl who was to be given to Valaria to seal the tie. I never saw her. The interest all centered on Tyaromon, Rinaridon and Valaria. This was their show and they would be the ones on the raised dais that had been placed in the auditorium.
By the time it was late enough for the family to put in their appearance at the celebration, I had run out of nails to chew while Jaenna, if anything, was ready to tear my head off. She was, understandably, ambivalent about what was happening and my tension just accentuated her own. I doubt that my steadfast denial that anything was wrong helped. Once at the celebration, I ate very little and drank nothing. Fortunately, that didn’t cause me to stand out.
Just before midnight, I managed to detach Jaenna from Valaria. “We need to get away from this party,” I told her.
“I can’t leave now, Danny. We have to be here at least three more hours.”
“This is urgent and business.”
“I can’t, Danny.” Jaenna seemed determined to make up for years of breaking family protocol in three days. Unfortunately, we had no choice.
I lowered my voice and hissed, “Ship in action!”
That startled her. Those green eyes locked onto mine and her face tautened. “What’s wrong?”
“Please,” I said. “Just take my word that we need to meet Angel at our rooms at midnight.”
Jaenna came down to earth fast. “All right, Danny,” she said. “I’m ready now.”
We strolled out leisurely, but once in the empty passageways we made for our suite as fast as we could go. We got there with five minutes to spare, but Angel wasn’t there. We settled in to wait, Jaenna in a chair, me pacing. Midnight came and passed without Angel. The jitters hit me full force. My hands turned clammy; my stomach did flip-flops. Jaenna was silent. Then, twenty-five minutes late, there was a noise at the door.
I froze, wound so tight I could barely breathe. Jaenna rose and stood by me. The door opened and Angel fell through it. Fell. Face first.
He groaned when he hit the floor but dragged himself in far enough for the door to close. A weapon had been planted in his back, its bloody hilt protruding by four inches.
I reached down to remove the weapon, but Angel rasped, “No. No, Danny-boy, don’t. It’s a dushuku. You know what will happen.” His voice bubbled ominously.
At the mention of a dushuku I jerked my hand away. I squatted down next to him. “Angel, what happened?” I asked.
“Never mind that, I got both bastards,” he said, “just listen.”
“No, you be quiet.” My brain was beginning to function again. “We’ll get you a doc.”
“No. Too late for a doc. Listen, while I can still talk. Norboh is alive. In the city. See him tonight. You must.” Then a gush of blood poured out of Angel’s mouth and it was over.
I stood up feeling worse than I ever had in my life. I wanted to cry and vomit and run to my mother, all at once. Angel would have never been mistaken for a saint, not even for a Boy Scout, but he had been my friend and had loyally followed me to his death. I felt closer to him than I had to any man on Earth. The odd thing is, I don’t believe I had ever said so, and now it was too late.
“Good-bye old friend, I’m sorry,” I said, thinking that at least I should say it out loud. “I guess we won’t have another beer in Cleveland after all.”
I might have stood there all night, lost in myself, but Jaenna woke me up by asking what Angel had meant about Norboh.
“This was all about what happened to Norboh. He must be alive in the capitol, somewhere, and the information was hot enough to get Angel killed. The rest will have to wait until we see him.”
“But Angel didn’t say where, and the city is a big place,” she protested. “Or do you have an idea where he is?”
“No, I don’t,” I said. “But I know who does.”
Before she could protest, I went on. “Just trust me on this for now. We have to get to Haranyi right away.” I hoped he had kept to his previous practice of leaving the celebrations early. And if he had Angel killed, I thought, I will settle that score myself.
Reaching Haranyi wasn’t going to be so simple. Whoever had killed Angel had done so to keep him from passing along what he had learned, which meant that if Jaenna and I were believed to have seen Angel before he died, we would be targets ourselves. I didn’t think anyone had seen us going into the suite, and I fervently hoped that it remained clear of spy devices, but going back out into the corridor would be tempting fate.
“Jaenna, does this window open?” I asked.
“Yes. Touch plate at the lower left corner.”
The glass smoothly retracted into the wall. A cool night breeze filled the room. I stuck my head out and looked around. One of the problems with Imperial architecture is that it favors smooth-sided buildings. There was no ledge, nothing at all that could be used for a handhold. That was discouraging. I looked around for other ideas. Not far from the building the tall trees grew. Their branches left the trunk at about a thirty degree angle. A large one passed near the window, just out of reach, and continued up over the roof. It could be reached by a leap from the window, no question about that.
I pointed it out to Jaenna. “Do you think it will hold my weight?”
“That’s what we call a stone tree,” she answered. “The wood is very tough. From the size of the branch, I think it will hold.”
I might have been happier had she vetoed the idea. Now I had to go through with it. I climbed into the open window space, which was big enough for me to crouch in, feet on the base and one hand anchoring me at the top. From there I stretched out for the branch. Leaning out the window that way, I could just place one hand on the limb. It wasn’t enough of a handhold to support my weight. I had to jump.
I took a deep breath. It was really only necessary to leap a few feet to get my arms firmly around the tree. But it was dark and if I missed, I was going to make a large grease spot on the lawn below. Thoughts like that do wonders for your concentration.
I don’t consciously remember deciding to jump. My legs simply acted. There was a horrible moment in midair when I was certain I had misjudged it, then I felt the branch between my arms. I clutched it to my chest tighter than I had ever clutched for a fumble. The bough bent, but did not break, and Danny did not fall. I worked my way down to the junction of the branch with the main trunk and then looked back. Jaenna was crouched in the window then. She had taken her cloak and wrapped it over that impractical dress and traded the sandals for her boots. She made the jump without hesitation, sure-handedly climbing onto the branch. The rough bark must have hurt her bare legs, but she made no sound. Behind her, the window silently slid closed.