Authors: Colin Alexander
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Space Opera
“I set the window to close,” she whispered when she reached me. “This way, it won’t be too obvious when they find him.”
“Nice touch,” I agreed.
The tree could have been designed for climbing. For all I know, some long-ago genetic engineer had done just that. Sturdy branches grew out of the trunk at regular intervals, making convenient foot and handholds. The lowest of them was no more than ten feet from the ground at the point where it joined the trunk. I sat down on it, then wrapped my hands around it and lowered myself to dangle at full length. I let go, dropping the last four feet. Jaenna followed rapidly.
“Come on,” she said. “We need to get away from the building quickly. This area is patrolled.”
“Which way is Haranyi’s house from here?” I asked.
“Just follow me,” she called back. “I used to sneak out there at night, just like this, when I was younger.” I should have figured that.
Jaenna must have followed that route very often in the past, and Tyaromon’s guards rarely changed their routine. Twice she called a halt and led us into dense bushes. Guards were due shortly, she said. Each time, a pair of guards promptly materialized out of the night. They wore dark cloaks and their boots made no noise in the grass. They seemed to pop up out of nowhere. Had I been alone, I would have walked right into them before I knew they were there. When the second pair were safely past, she signaled me to start again.
“From here to Haranyi’s it should be clear,” she said. “He has never posted a guard at his own door.
Still, I had no intention of walking up to Haranyi’s front door and knocking. Jaenna’s faith to the contrary, he was tied into some very nasty politics. So, I led us around the house, climbed a hedge, tromped through a flower bed and emerged near the table where we had eaten lunch with Haranyi. The grounds behind the house were dark and deserted. That was only partially reassuring. There were plenty of trees and bushes between us and the house and those guards were hard to spot. Jaenna insisted that there would be none, but humored me in taking a shrub to tree approach. That brought us to the back of the house without being spotted. There were lights on inside, but no evidence of movement.
“Jaenna,” I whispered, “what’s the best way in?”
“The front door,” she said. “Haranyi had it keyed to me a long time ago. I had to sneak
of the Residence, not
Some help that was! “I am not going to the front door,” I said. I scanned the rear of the house with mounting frustration. Although there were windows ground to ceiling, they were all closed. The back door we had used was also shut.
“Any other ideas?” I asked.
“I never used the back door, but it makes sense that it was also keyed to me,” she said. “He’s had no real reason to change it.” She walked over to the door and put her hand on the touch plate. Silently, the door slid open. “This means we won’t set off any alarms either. The house will detect me and assume it’s okay.”
She was smiling merrily at my chagrin and, were we not breaking into a house, I’m sure I would have found a sharp retort. As it was, I took the lead and kept my attention where it belonged, on the room ahead. We found Haranyi in his study. He was seated motionless in a heavily cushioned chair, still in the uniform he had worn at the party. At first, I thought he was dead too, but then he let out a snore. The study had no windows through which an observer could see what transpired. Perfect.
I crossed the distance to the chair in three long strides. Haranyi snored again. I shook his shoulder. When his eyes opened, I started to speak.
What I intended to say was, “All right, I want some answers.” I never got past the “All right.” Behind me, I heard Jaenna shout, “No!” I felt Haranyi move. How he moved, I don’t remember. Suddenly, and in quick succession, there was pain in my midsection, I couldn’t inhale, stars danced in front of my eyes, and I found myself up in the air. I never saw the blows that hit me. Certainly, I could not have countered them. I landed hard on my back, which would have knocked the breath out of me if I had any left. Dimly, I heard Jaenna yell again. When I could focus my eyes again, I saw Haranyi standing over me, poised to strike. If I had any doubts about the skills of Jaenna’s teacher, they were gone.
“You are alive at Jaenna’s request,” Haranyi told me. “Talk.”
I looked up at him and, surprisingly, wasn’t afraid. “A friend of mine was killed tonight bringing me the news that you are a liar,” I said as soon as I was able to draw a breath.
“You expect to stay alive by talking like that?” he asked.
“No, but if you kill me for it, you’ll prove what I said to Jaenna. Unless you plan to kill her too.” At first, my mouth had been moving on sheer bravado. When Haranyi responded with that question, however, my tactical sense took over. There is an art to talking one’s way out of situations, from speeding tickets to returning husbands. Haranyi was going to try to avoid killing me, if only because Jaenna had come with me.
Haranyi’s first response was a snort. Then he said, “So, you come here to kill me for it.”
“No.” The thought had crossed my mind, given different circumstances, but there was no advantage to be gained by mentioning it.
“Sneaking into my house does not suggest that you wanted to talk.”
“I had to be certain we reached you.”
He snorted again. “For that you could have come to the front door. Jaenna could have told you that.”
“She did. But times change and I wanted to be sure. I’m stubborn that way.”
“Stupid, too.” Insults, I could take. What was important was that he backed off and let me sit up on the floor. Miraculously, everything moved on command. From my seat, I could see Jaenna still in the entrance to the room.
“All right, freebooter,” he said, “tell me why I’m a liar.”
“You told us that you had searched for Norboh and learned nothing. Yet my friend learned from one of your guards that Norboh is alive in the city. He heard another guard threaten his source with retribution from you for mentioning it. It wouldn’t happen if you know nothing.” Thankfully, I didn’t need, any longer, to mention Valaria’s comment about the intensity of the search.
“Haranyi?” Jaenna’s question was almost a gasp. She sagged in the doorway as though hit by a punch.
That one plaintive word did what I could not. It took the starch out of Haranyi. It was an old Srihani, not a fighter, who sat back down in the chair.
“You give me a choice of which trust to violate,” he sighed. “Maybe you aren’t quite so stupid, freebooter.”
“Did you lie to us, Haranyi?” Jaenna’s voice half strangled itself as she spoke.
Neither of us was prepared for such an abrupt admission. After a tense silence, Jaenna asked him why he had lied.
“Lying is intrinsic to government and politics. What you mean,” he corrected her, “is why would I lie to someone as close to me as my own son ever was?” Jaenna nodded. “Very well. Norboh is alive and in the city. Denying that would be pointless now. If I tell you the truth, Jaenna, will you vouch for this freebooter? With your life will you vouch for him?”
There was pain on Haranyi’s face. “You know that I have owed Norboh a great personal debt for my son. There is nothing secret about it. A while ago, Norboh came to me in fear. He believed that he was being set up for assassination. Where his information came from, I don’t know, but he felt that Tyaromon expected to benefit from the appearance of sticking to his policy even in the face of losing two key advisors. We concluded that Norboh’s best chance was to be slipped onto a Fleet ship in the confusion after the ceremony. I arranged for a hiding place and guards to watch over him. Obviously, I cannot admit to this publicly.”
dead and Tyaromon
playing it for political advantage. That fit. As cold-blooded as it sounded, having met Tyaromon, I could believe it. So Angel had died to cover up a fabrication designed to cover up another fabrication. That was a bitter pill to swallow. But, if true, why had it been so important for us to see Norboh?
Haranyi wasn’t happy when I told him that we had to see Norboh. He protested, quite reasonably, that the fewer people who knew of Norboh’s location, the better it was. He had limited the number of guards at the Residence who knew the truth, and those had strict orders to maintain secrecy. In fact, as he told it, Angel’s death probably resulted from the enforcement of those orders. Still, Angel had died telling us to see Norboh. I wasn’t going to tell Haranyi that, so I insisted that I couldn’t accept his explanations without seeing Norboh. Jaenna backed my stance, and it was her insistence that made him give in.
For the trip, Haranyi supplied us with an aircar and a driver. He did not give us Norboh’s location. The pilot was waiting when we arrived in a tiny clearing only a few hundred feet from the house. It made me wonder whether Haranyi kept one on call at all times. Haranyi ordered him to take us to Norboh and as soon as we were strapped in, he lifted off with an acceleration that had stars dancing in front of my eyes.
The pilot swung north once we had left the Residence to avoid flying to near the spaceport, then arced back toward the city proper. That little car was fast. I doubt we had been airborne more than fifteen minutes before we began to close in on the city towers. Where Kordon on Calldlamm had been striking in its beauty, Seerie, the capital city of Kaaran, stood out by its size. The central portion of the city was a mountain of glowing towers, with a pair of twin peaks set close together, a saddle of slightly lower buildings between them. It was only when we came closer that I realized that the area covered by the towers was at least as large as Manhattan and that many of the towers were over a half-mile high. Aircar traffic flitted around and between the buildings, but our pilot didn’t head for them. Instead, he banked toward an area where the buildings rapidly tapered to three and four stories tall.
There was little traffic in that area and there were fewer lights. We landed after a steep dive. Once down, the aircar functioned like a standard hovercar. From ground level, this part of the city was very unprepossessing. Streetlights were out and there was litter in the street. Some of the buildings sported broken windows. There wasn’t a soul on the street. It seemed that even in the biggest city of one of the richest worlds of the Galactic Empire, there were slums.
The driver stopped the car at a restaurant. The place looked grimy even in the dim streetlight. There were few lights and no customers evident inside.
The driver turned and spoke his first words of the evening. “Stay in the car,” he said. “I’ll make certain it is secure.”
I could see movement inside the restaurant after he went in, but could not make out anyone else. He was gone only a few minutes.
Returning to the car, he said, “It’s clear. Walk slowly to the main entrance. Make sure that your hands are visible at all times. I’ll stay here to guard the car.” It dawned on me that he was wearing a blaster.
Inside the restaurant, Jaenna and I were met by a burly Srihani in civilian clothes. The blaster he covered us with, however, was identical to the ones Haranyi’s guards carried. After he was satisfied of our identity, he introduced himself as Anders and lowered the blaster.
I looked around. If that joint had ever been a restaurant, it had been a long time ago. The front room was empty and dust-covered. Anders led us to a door at the back. Another Srihani in the doorway had also been covering us with a blaster. Behind him, a small room had been set up as a sleeping area. There were three more Srihani in it. One of them rose as we entered.
“Norboh!” Jaenna exclaimed.
He was a tall, gaunt Srihani whose skin had a yellowish cast. Thinning gray hair topped a face whose cheekbones cast shadows on the skin below them. Still, this human husk managed a genuine smile.
“Jaenna and the freebooter Captain,” he said. “I’m glad you came.”
That surprised me. “You sound as though you were expecting us,” I said.
Norboh gave me another look, the sort used by someone who knows more than you do. “Credit me with knowing my trade,” he said. “I’m able to obtain news of the Residence through the guards Haranyi sends. There’s no reason for them not to speak to me. I heard you were here and I heard that one of your crew had inquired about me. It was easy to pass a message back that you should be brought to see me.”
Somewhere in the middle his words ceased to make sense. Maybe that was how Norboh
we had come to see him, but it didn’t coincide with the facts that I knew. Jaenna looked confused too. I told Norboh, in brief, how we had really come to see him. As I did, his smile disappeared.
“That is not good news,” he said. “Do you know who did the killing?”
“No,” I said.
I was going to leave it at that, but Jaenna added, “Haranyi said that the guards have orders to prevent leaks about you. He thinks it happened that way.”
“Let us hope so,” Norboh replied. “If it was by anyone else, there is likely to be more trouble soon. I think that we three need to have a serious talk.”
“You will get no objection from either of us,” I told him. “Go right ahead.”
“Not here,” he said. Then he turned to the guards. “Anders, I need to talk alone with these two. Have the guard outside bring the car up to block off the entrance to the back alley. Then see that the front and rear doors here are secured. We will be out back for a little while.”
“At your order.”
Norboh led us to another door and into a narrow alley behind the restaurant. It was almost pitch-black outside. Neither of the moons was high in the sky and little light from the few streetlights that functioned penetrated to the alleyway. The whole alley was cluttered with trash and rubble. Norboh led us into the deeper gloom, then halted.
“I hate to ask,” I said, “but how safe is this place? This doesn’t look like the best of neighborhoods.”
Norboh chuckled. “It’s actually quite safe here. This part of the city is quite old and some time ago it became apparent that it was too expensive to maintain it. Clearing it would be almost as much trouble, so it was just cordoned off. Were you alone in this section, it would be very unsafe. Misfits and outlaws tend to accumulate in such areas. But we make certain that no one is in the immediate vicinity here. I don’t trust the guards to hear what I must say, and I would expect Haranyi to have the interior under surveillance.”