Darktraders

Two ships sat on the field. They was ‘leggers and pirates equipped with the standard box of tricks. Tractors to lock them on to a ship or free-floating cargo, guns that could angle to protect a ship on the ground. And a nasty sense of civic duty. They was going to hold us on the heavy-side and hammer us to death. They hoped.

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TWO SHIPS SAT ON THE FIELD

They was ‘leggers and pirates equipped with the standard box of tricks. Tractors to lock them on to a ship or free-floating cargo, guns that could angle to protect a ship on the ground. And a nasty sense of civic duty.

They was going to hold us on the heavy-side and hammer us to death.

They hoped.

I gave Ghost Dance all the go-devils in the inventory, to where I was sure something was going to cut loose and blow. She started pulling away, and the view-screens went fade-to-black as the darktraders on the field gunned their engines to hold her. I opened a wide channel. Both ships would hear it.

“This is Ghost Dance. We’ve got fifteen plates of goforth and nothing to lose. You boys want to be serious nonfiction you just hang on; I guarantee to wrap you around the first lamppost in angeltown.’’

No answer. Just the howl of an open circuit. Dance was starting to shake.

“I mean it. When you forged your First Tickets, anybody tell you what happens you Jump too deep in a gravity well?”

Silence.

“Want to find out?”

Chapter 1

In a Hellflower Garden of Bright Images

I was minding my own business doing what was more or less any Gentry-legger’s stock in trade—delivering a kick to a client. Only the kick was my buddy the live political hotrock Tiggy Stardust, hellflower prince, and the client not only didn’t know he’d ordered the delivery, he might blow both of us wayaway when he got it.

“I do not like this, Kore.”

“Is this supposed to surprise me, bai?”

I hadn’t told Tiggy that. Tiggy was sure his da would protect both of us—but then, how much did you know about life when you was fourteen?

“It is demeaning.”

“If you’d left the damn knife in the ship, you wouldn’t have this problem.”

“It is not a ‘knife.’ It is my arthame.”

It was my idea he could get to be fifteen with a little help.

My name is Butterflies-are-free Peace Sincere and I’m a moron.

***

We’d hitched a ride here on a pirate ship hight Woebegone on account of a promise her captain Eloi Flashheart had made to Yours Truly in the not-too-distant past. But Eloi’s charity stopped at the spaceport gates, and now Tiggy and me was on our own. In beautiful theory it wouldn’t be for long. Kennor Starbringer was here to open the new Civil Year from the Ramasarid Palace of Justice in Low Mikasa. Kennor Starbringer was Tiggy’s da, the man who wanted Tiggy back.

I hoped.

“Soon we will be with my father once more. His vengeance on the Mikasaport Authorities will be terrible. How dare they use a servant of the Gentle People thus? Is not my word sufficient bond?”

“I guess some people just got attitude problems, bai.”

It’s like this. A long time ago—when I still had a partner, a ship, and a future—I went and did the dumbest thing in a life career of doing dumb things and rescued a hellflower from some roaring boys in a Free Port. Only the hellflower turned out to be the Honorable Puer Walks-by-Night Kennor’s-son Starbringer Amrath Valijon of Chernbereth-Molkath, Third Person of House Starborn—that’s Tiggy Stardust for short—son of Kennor Starbringer the well-known and very truly sought after Second Person of House Starborn and Prexy of the Azarine Coalition and the roaring boys had been set on to kill him.

And the only thing I knew about the killers for sure was that they had to be somebody what’d been with Tiggy on the alMayne consular ship Pledge of Honor when she was orbiting a little place called Wanderweb. And that left room for a lot of rude surprises.

“It is not right.”

“Bai, you going to tell me right’s got something to do with the way the universe is run?”

And if I didn’t take Tiggy back to them anyway—House Starborn in general, Daddy Starbringer in particular—Tiggy was going to die of a bad case of hellflower honor.

“Perhaps not among the chaudatu, Kore. But my honor cries out for vengeance!”

“Je, well, tell it to keep its voice down. If the proctors tap us, you going to be honorable in the morgue.”

You see, our boy Tiggy—which is to say Valijon Starbringer of alMayne—is a hellflower, and hellflowers ain’t like real people. What you got to know about hellflowers, first bang out of the box, is that they’re crazy. What I found out about them, back when I had free time and a partner I could trust, was that hellflowers—which is flashcant for our galactic brothers the alMayne—is just this side of an Interdicted Culture. They’d be deliriously happy to be dictys, too, except for the little fact that their homeworld isn’t anywheres near the Tahelangone Sector and their home delight in life is to hunt and kill Old Fed Libraries, of which nobody but Tiggy and me has seen zip for the last millennium. So they spend the part of their time that isn’t spent hiring out as mercenaries making everyone else in the Empire real, real nervous on account of two things.

“Soon we will be with my father, Kore.”

They’re the best at what they do, which is killing.

“And his vengeance will be terrible. Je. I heard you the last time.”

And you can never figure out when they’re going to do it, on account of hellflower honor.

“I would even have challenged them honorably for the right to pass, but the tongueless ones would not duel.”

“Je. Magnanimous.”

But in about a hour-fifty, tops, this was not going to be my problem. Kennor Starbringer was at the Ramasarid Palace of Justice, and me and Tiggy was going there.

“I do not like this, Kore.”

***

Low Mikasa Spaceport was the biggest thing I’d ever seen in my life, and it wasn’t even the biggest thing in earshot. All you had to do was look up and there was High Mikasa hanging overhead, looking ripe and ready to fall with all kinds Imperial topgallants, Company bigriggers, and other stuff in all stages of built hanging around it. The Mikasarin Corporation holds the patents used for most of the shipbuilding done in the Empire and High Mikasa builds them. You use Mikasarin technology or you don’t fly.

I looked around. Tiggy was right behind me. He had not been a happy hellflower since we came through Debarkation Control. Hellflowers does not go anywheres without their knife. Period.

I hadn’t even bothered to try getting my blasters through—Low Mikasa being capital of the Mikasarin Directorate, it’s rife with all the bennies of civilization like a weapons policy that boils down to “don’t even try.” But Tiggy-bai’d been sure they’d let his arthame through, and they had. Sort of. “Cultural empowerer and object of spiritual focus” they called x-centimeters of ferrous inert-blade. And then they glued it into its sheath.

I hadn’t stopped hearing about it since.

“Soon we will be with my father, Kore,” Tiggy said for only the thirtieth or so time since breakfast. Usually he wasn’t a chatterer, and all of a sudden I realized what was different now.

Soon he’d be with his father.

And he wasn’t any more certain of what Kennor’d do than I was.

***

The Ramasarid Palace of Justice is this big ornate ceremonial thing in the Low Mikasa Civic Center that looks like a Imperial starshaker crashed into a fancy dessert. The walkway we was on dropped us the other side of the plaza where we could of got a good look at it except for all the people in the way. The last time I’d seen so many bodies in one place there’d been a riot going on.

Tiggy and me fit right in, so nobody gave us any more look than Tiggy’s hellflowerishness accounted for. We worked our way up to the front. It was just a good thing wasn’t neither of us carrying anything worth stealing; priggers must be having a field day here.

“Kore,” Tiggy said in my ear, “the chaudatu lied. He said it was not lawful for the people to carry weapons here, and he lied.”

“T’hell he did, ’flower. S’matter, somebody try to clout your knife?”

“No, but that man is armed, and thus the port chaudatu lied.”

I tried to look around and see where Tiggy was looking, but we was both jammed in tighter than furs on a Riis run. I couldn’t see anything.

“Where?”

“Back there, and—”

About then they let the palace doors open and everybody started shoving.

Chapter 2

When Hell Was in Session

The Audience Chamber was pretty thoroughly jammed with a cosmopolitan mixture of races and sexes and there was something just the least bit bent about it all. I put it down to me not being used to the way things looked in the Directorates. I’d done lots of strange places and been lots of strange things in my misspent etcetera, but the frontier of even a decadent culture looked different from darkest civilization. I wished Paladin was here to tell me that. I wished Paladin was here to tell me anything.

But my good buddy and partner Paladin wasn’t going to be around anymore. That was the price of a lot of things—like the death of an Old Federation Library named Archive.

And I could worry about it on my own time—after I was shut of Tiggy Stardust.

“Was good thing you know that Winterfire jilt,” I said to him. “Now you be hellflower back in good standing Real Soon Now.”

Tiggy didn’t look like he thought so. Tiggy looked like he thought he’d left his honor somewheres and wasn’t sure where.

“Kore Winterfire is the chief of my bodyguard, and before that, when I was not yet a person, it was Kore Winterfire who raised me to adulthood.”

Terrific.

“Yeah, well, don’t worry about it. Everybody makes mistakes.” I just hoped we wasn’t everybody. We couldn’t afford to be.

Because once upon a time the Nobly-Born Governor General His Imperial Highness the TwiceBorn Prince Mallorum Archangel, that busy child with a interest in Library Science, decided he wanted to put the Azarine Coalition in his pocket and walk off in the direction of becoming Emperor his own self. For any number of rude reasons, the only way to do that was to rewrite the Gordinar Canticles that govern the Coalition and abrogate the hell out of Azarine Coalition Neutrality.

He couldn’t do that while Kennor was president of that same Coalition, Kennor Starbringer being a Constructionist who took Coalition Neutrality to bed with him at night, but Kennor’s next-in-line for alMayne’s seat on the Coalition was the bright hope of LessHouse Dragonflame, Uncle Morido, and Morido Dragonflame was real pliable. It was obvious that time had come for Kennor Starbringer to retire.

But Archangel was smart—or maybe somebody was smart for him. Offing Kennor direct would just stir up bad trouble back on alMayne. So nobody was going to do that—they was just going to arrange for Kennor to become a Official alMayne Nonperson and Imperial criminal.

That was why all the disproportionate interest in Our Boy Tiggy stopping breathing that had occupied my lately life. Once he did, Kennor’d either have to avenge his death (illegal in the Empire) or not avenge it (illegal on alMayne). Either way his actions was actionable. Neat. Archangel was picking out his best fly-vines for attending Kennor’s funeral when one little thing interfered.

Kennor didn’t avenge his kinchin-bai. Kennor didn’t un-avenge him. Because Tiggy wasn’t dead or murdered or any other little thing, and as long as Tiggy wasn’t guaranteed dead, he wasn’t Kennor’s honor-problem, and that could of stonewalled His Mallorumship for years. Tiggy’d just disappeared, courtesy of Yours Truly.

And now he was back. And fresh from being seen by Archangel right in the middle of Archangel’s Library project. One whiff of “Library” and even Dragonflame would bolt, because if there was one thing hellflowers hated worse than death and hell and chaudatu it was what they called the Machine and the rest of the universe called Libraries.

I just hoped Kennor’s hellflower traitor felt the same way, because that put paid to Archangel’s dreams of putting the Coalition in his pocket. The bottom line was: Archangel’d made the latest of many grabs for the Coalition—and missed. Now him and Kennor and everybody was back to Square One.

And that meant it was time for Archangel to try again.

***

About the time I was getting bored sitting here taking symbolic part in the glorious pageant of Imperial rule there was a real loud blatt of trumpets and a Imperial lackey in Space Angel black came out on the balcony where Kennor’d be standing Real Soon Now and read off a long prolegomenon.

Waitaminnit.

Sure as I knew trade-routes, His Nobly-Bornness the TwiceBorn Lord Prince and Governor-General Mallorum Archangel (second in line for the Phoenix Throne, collect ’em all)’s writ only ran in the Outlands, which the Directorates wasn’t. He was the courtier of last resort for the Sector Governors, but they only had nominal power in Directorate Space. Directors and Shareholders ran the action here. Mikasarin Corporation should be overseeing the opening of the Mikasa Civil Year, or a TwiceBorn from Throne. Not one of the Governor-General’s hired guns.

Besides which, Archangel was last seen declaring martial law in Roaq Sector and pretending he didn’t own part-shares in the Old Federation Library of terminal illegality that I’d relieved him of. He would have to of moved hell-and-High-Jump to get loose of that and beat the Woebegone here.

But even if there was trouble right here in downtown glittertown, free citizens of Imperial Mikasa was as likely to make it at a Imperial bean-feast as they was to ask for higher taxes, and the place was crawling with legitimates besides. So why did I wish so damn much I had my blasters—or even a vibro?

“Kore, I do not like this.”

I bet they didn’t have riots on alMayne, because that was what this was going to be in about twenty seconds and Tiggy didn’t look half worried enough. Which was oke as I was worrying plenty-enough for both of us.

The Governor-General’s Space Angel finished his screed and left the stage. The crowd started making mobnoises real quiet-like. I forgot about any spare problems I might of had.

“Tiggy-bai, think we maybe wait outside and see your da later whiles, if all same to you.”

He started to get up. Just then there was a booming noise behind us. The Court bailiffs had slammed home the big ornate bars across the doors closing off the Audience Chamber. We was locked in.

“Trouble,” I said to Tiggy, and started moving him toward where we could get a wall at our backs.

The inner curtains on the balcony swept back and Kennor Starbringer stepped out. He looked like Tiggy, but he looked even more like he’d had to put up with lots of things in life he didn’t like. He was overdressed like every hellflower ever born and had his Court of the TwiceBorn robes on over that, open down the front to show off the hellflower glitterflash. All of a sudden I knew I’d been played for a greenie and by who and it was all my own fault, too.

The free citizens of Imperial Mikasa let out a yowl like a scalded theriomorph and came forward over their seats shouting death to extra-planetary mercenaries and Azarine Coalition headmen.

Somebody let off a blaster.

“Kore—what is this? What is happening?” Tiggy had his back to the wall and looked wild-eyed.

Somebody’d got tired of waiting for Baijon Starbringer to become an Official Dead Person. Somebody’d decided to come up with another reason for his da to retire. Somebody’d bought a riot.

“Shut up and run!”

Only wasn’t any place to run to. The citizenry was a mob now but the mob wasn’t interested in us. Yet. Soon enough they’d stop trying to get at one hellflower and settle for any hellflower. I looked up at Kennor. There was six ’flowers up there on that balcony all armed to the teeth and all looking to him to order open fire.

Somebody was counting on Kennor shooting back. And he wouldn’t, because dusting citizens of Low Mikasa’d get him gigged under the Pax Imperador as sure as avenging his murdered son would. And Kennor Starbringer was going to hold on to the presidency of the Azarine Coalition at all cost.

“Move!”

I shoved Tiggy hard and pointed. If the ornamental screen fronting the balcony’d hold our weight, we could get up off the killing floor.

“I’ll cover you!” Tiggy said.

“Dammit—”

“Kore! I am armed!”

I looked. He’d tore the glued-on sheath of his arthame off in shreds and the inert-blade glittered sharplike and next to no good at all against crazies with real heat.

But it was still more than I had. I started up the carved pillar that led to the balcony and hoped Kennor wouldn’t kill me when I got there.

The world narrowed to where I put my hands and feet, without point nor end. Boot on garland. Stop and pull off gloves for better grip. See mob surge back and forth below like a liquid in null-grav, making up its mind. Balcony shakes. brawling underneath and somebody taking my lead and starting up the pillar on the other side.

I reached the edge of the balcony and hooked one arm through the railing. Smelled burnt rock where a blastcharge’d spattered against the wall and started dust filtering down. Innocent citizens and bought roaring boys was muddled all together on the Audience Chamber floor, and all in about the time it would of took for Kennor to get through the first sentence of his speech.

“C’mon, you godlost glitterborn!” I braced myself and reached down. Tiggy sprang up and grabbed my wrist. Damn near pulled me in two before he caught hold of the same ornamental stringcourse I was wrapped around and scrabbled over me and up onto the balcony.

The mob hit the space where he’d been and started feeding on itself. All that took about as long as the second sentence of Kennor’s speech would of.

Kennor’s ’flowers closed up around him when Tiggy vaulted over the rail. I could see from where I was that Tiggy was shouting something but all sound was wiped out by mob-roar. The balcony shook again and gave that definitive lurch of structural weakness. Tiggy grabbed my elbow and dragged me up, yelling at the others in helltongue.

The first wave of the climbers reached the edge of the balcony and started scrambling through the rail. The floor lurched and the tiles underfoot started to buckle. Kennor ordered his people back into the alcove toward where the back stairs was. He pointed along the buckling seam of flooring. A couple of the bright hellflower lads got the idea and fired. The balcony tore lose.

There was a crash, silence, and then some dispirited screaming. Kennor said something I still couldn’t hear and looked amused.

Hellflowers smile when they’re about to kill something. That’s what I should of remembered.

By now a couple of the bodyguard had cut open the access door to the back stairs, which seemed to of been accidentally sealed from the outside.

“To the Embassy!” Kennor shouted in a voice that carried. He hadn’t turned one hair at Tiggy’s return from the dead. The hellflower bodyguard formed up again with Kennor, Tiggy, and me in the middle. I was elbow-high to the lot of them and I couldn’t see a damn thing, but that didn’t matter much because then we started down the back stairs and it was pitch-dark.

About now we heard sirens outside and all power to the building was cut. Standard riot-control protocol: no lights, blast doors over windows rolled shut, computer access shut down.

The last one through the balcony access door wedged it shut again and the mob-noises and the sirens cut off like you’d sliced it. The only noise I heard at first was my boots on the treads, and I got the idea of stopping about the same time everyone else did. There was noise ahead of us.

More mob, I thought first, but no. This area was closed to citizenrabble, and any of the kiddies barred into the Audience Chamber would of come from behind.

Professionals, then. The last backstop. The hellflowers I was in the middle of flowed around me like air and made slightly less noise.

In the pitch-black indoor dark of the back stairs of the Ramasarid Palace of Justice, Kennor Starbringer’s hellflower bodyguard hit an unknown number of armed and dangerous professional, experienced, and fully briefed sellswords with orders to kill.

The sellswords didn’t stand a chance.

I heard Kennor order no survivors, and I knew it was because if there was no survivors, Kennor could make up any fantasy he pleased and go on farcing the Court of the TwiceBorn about him being on the right side of hellflower honor.

And no survivors was eventually going to mean me.

Funny; until I met Tiggy I always thought nighttimers had the monopoly on bending the Pax Imperador. But what I’d seen lately made us the junior league. Archangel dancing with High Book, some hellflower glitterborn buying half Mikasa’s legitimates to ice the president of the Azarine Coalition, president of the same doing mass wetwork to hold onto his job.

If there’d been anything but sudden death on the other side of the Audience Chamber door I would of gone that way and not stopped running until I reached Port and Woebegone. But there wasn’t. So I stayed where I was, and five minutes later none of the mercs was left alive.

When the shouting was over someone lit a torch and Kennor’s hellflower hardboys started searching what was left of the bodies. I’d seen worse, but not lately. I stayed where I was.

Blackhammer was one of the deaders. Kennor looked at him, then looked at Tiggy and me. I could see the wheels turning behind those hellflower-blue eyes and wished I knew what he was thinking. The hellflowers finished their work and we went on.

Got to the bottom of the access stair and out into a Palace of Justice restricted area. The hallway was deserted and everything was quiet as guilt.

In a sane universe Kennor would of gone back to the rest of his hellflowers, or made a public fuss to the legitimates, or at least complained out loud. But Kennor was hellflower, and hellflowers is crazy. Kennor just smole a small smile at the big empty and him, six hellflowers, Tiggy, and me faded into a corridor meant for tronics at the back of the Palace of Justice.

The illegal transponder I got put in my jaw for reasons too complicated to go into here buzzed a little as it took transmission on a near-miss frequency, but even if I couldn’t hear anything it gave me the good word. Imperial Space Marines or something else real heavyweight was down and around and chatting itself up. A Remote Transponder Sensor is what only them is supposed to use.

But if Space Marines or something like them was here in a Sector-Capital-and-Directorate-Homeworld, they couldn’t of arrived after Tiggy and me’d left Woebegone—no time—and Eloi would of told us if they’d got there before.

Unless they’d been shipped in secretly, because somebody knew a riot was going to be on offer. Somebody name of Mallorum Archangel, who was sponsoring Kennor’s little jaunt to Mikasa and oh by the way his assassination, too. Because he’d got tired of waiting for Baijon Starbringer to turn up livealive or dead.

Or because now that Tiggy’d seen his Library, Archangel couldn’t afford to have him and Kennor meet again in this life.

Terrific.

Kennor seemed to know where he was going, and that was outside into an alleyway at the back of the Palace. The alley had a pretty good view of the police cordon that’d been thrown around the block. Air scrubbers was hovering in place over the fire, and if I’d been brain-dead everything would of looked normal.

I’d heard of treason. They was fighting it all the time in the stories in Thrilling Wonder Talkingbooks. I never thought I’d actually see some, and I wasn’t sure if I had now. Only Kennor was the for-sure real live law, and it was my kind of people what hid from the legitimates, not his.

I’d used to think.

The bodyguard was stripping off their weapons and piling them in a corner of the alley. Kennor started shucking his TwiceBorn robes and most of his hellflower glitterflash and then pulled his hair out of the ruched topknot alMayne high-heat wore.

Leaving now would be the smartest thing I ever did. It wouldn’t even matter that I got gigged for illegal emigration, unlawful appropriation of contract warmgoods, possession of illegal technology, and six other fatal warrants the minute I hit the street—there was a chance I wouldn’t, which was better than I had here. I knew it.

But I didn’t move quite fast enough. I stood there like a jerk holding the blaster I’d picked up back on the stairs until Kennor looked at me and reached for it.

“The carrying of personal armament on Directorate worlds except by authorized personnel is forbidden under the provisions of Chapter II of the Revised Inappropriate Technology Act of the Nine-hundredth and seventy-fifth Year of Imperial Grace. As a duly-commissioned representative of the Phoenix Throne, I must ask you to surrender your weapon.”

I looked at him. He smirked—or whatever hellflowers do with their mouth that couldn’t be that because they is just too damn noble. I handed him the blaster and he tossed it into a discard pile that looked like somebody’d boosted a Imperial armory. Even if hellflowers had the diplomatic permit to carry all that fire-iron, I bet they didn’t have a permit to leave it around lying loose.

Kennor turned back to his bodyguard. By now they was stripped down to just knives and one of them was passing around a tube of goo so they could fake the Mikasan peace-seal on those. Kennor’s people was real pros at farcing legitimates, and I would of been real interested in that if I ever planned on being interested in anything again.

When they was all done making themselves up to look like citizen hellflowers and nobody related to the riot of the week at the Palace of Justice, Kennor gave them their orders in handsign. I could follow that easier than I could helltongue: Scatter. Regroup at prearranged point. Say nothing.

Then six hellflowers, looking like anyone’s nursery of innocent unarmed unofficial children, faded off smartly and vanished into the crowd that was starting to collect around the riot-police, and Kennor, Tiggy, and me was the only ones in the alley.

“Look here, your Honorship—” I began.

“Now,” said Kennor, laying hold of my wrist in your basic inarguable fashion, “we three will go together and quickly—before the Imperial chaudatu find us here and we all suffer unfortunate accidents while in protective custody.”

I didn’t bother to remind him I had a guaranteed accident coming no matter what. Kennor took off with me attached, and Tiggy followed.

Chapter 3

Hell is a Very Small Place

It was three hundred twenty hours since I’d been at Mikasaport last, and six hours since I’d agreed to a cross with so many doublings I couldn’t even remember who was betraying what anymore, and my main concern was how to walk in my new high-ticket footwear without falling flat on my face. The clothes I was in would of made a serious down payment on a new ship, but I wasn’t going to have to worry about that.

Tiggy Stardust—who said his name was Baijon, thank you very much—and me was going to alMayne.

It was raining. The streets was deserted, all but for Kennor’s great big land-yacht with Kennor driving. The yacht would also make a serious dent in the price of a new ship.

Which we would get. Kennor’d promised me a ship and papers, along with anything else I wanted to ask for to set us up in the Trade, in the nearest place Kennor hauled cubic and didn’t have the Pax Imperador looking over all of our shoulders.

alMayne. And at the moment I couldn’t promote a better idea.

I didn’t have a ship and I didn’t have a partner who could forge me clean registry on a stolen one, or launder my First Ticket, or anything useful like that. And I didn’t have hope of buying a ship outright, even in my new crown jewels. A ship costs credit. Lots of credit.

I remembered back when I’d been willing to do a lot of killing just for the chance to wrap my stolen pilot skills around a forged First Ticket. Not even for a ship, mind—just for the documents that’d let me fly one. That’d been a long time ago. Before Paladin.

And now it was like that again. A ship was freedom. A ship was survival. So I had to get a ship any way I could—and that meant going to alMayne with Baijon he said I got to call him on the off-chance that Kennor was going to do at least some of the things he said.

I had papers identifying me as a alarthme of House Starbringer, one Butterfly Sancerre by name. They got my name wrong but enough of the facts right that it was a cleaner ID than any I’d ever owned. The rest of my earthly possessions consisted of a pass to travel from Mikasa to alMayne, and then freely through Washonnet Sector. alMayne’s a Directorate even if it doesn’t hold any client worlds or control any more than its own system space—you mind your manners in Washonnet when hellflowers say to.

The Pledge Of Honor was highbinding Mikasa, but that wasn’t how we was going off to hellflower-land. Pledge was still going to Throne with Kennor. By rights Baijon should of gone with him, but talking his way out of that was Kennor’s business.

Kennor’s personal particular battle-yacht wasn’t here either, having gone home whiles ago with Winterfire’s head and the news that she wasn’t quite as human as originally thought.

This left only one way for us to get home to alMayne.

We was taking the galactic bus.

To be strictly accurate, it was a Company highliner. The highliner was named Circle of Stars, and Kennor’d held it here for ninety hours waiting for me to be well enough to make up my mind. So now we was in a helluva hurry to leave.

I watched Kennor watching me. He was disappointed the rain didn’t bother me, chaudatu as I was. Baijon was now promised to serve me for the next fifty-six galactic standard years, that being his age (14 gsy) times the number of times he said I’d saved his life (four). Never mind the fact that if I lived that long I’d be ninety-one and dead for the past thirty years. Honor was honor.

And I hoped Baijon was stupid enough not to realize just how stupid this was as a concept, galactopolitically speaking. Heirs was heirs; they had more things to do with their lives than spend it prenticed to a pirate, or whatever Kennor thought I was. Because if Da Kennor needed Babby Baijon at all for the family business (reasonable), he’d just put him out of reach for ever and aye (stupid).

Only the only way Baijon was going to be of use to his da now was dead. And even if Kennor gave up the Coalition yesterday, it was too late to save his beamish boy. Baijon had his deathmark: he’d seen Archangel’s Library.

Archangel knew by now that Baijon’d talked to Kennor. But Kennor hadn’t cried Library, so Archangel didn’t know how much Kennor knew. Not knowing was going to give him happy days and busy nights and maybe take his mind off us.

At least, that was the plan.

We drove past all the restricted parts of the port and got to the docking ring whiles I was thinking that unfair must be the default setting for reality because there’s so much of it.

The gig for Circle of Stars was bigger nor my whole last ship had been. She was a rickety piece, all flashcandy for the groundlings, and you could see her half a klik away. Lit inside and out, stuffed with inertial compensators, and not a goforth in sight. Her pilot was wearing a comic-opera version of a Company man’s uniform-silver boots and gauntlets and a helmet with blast-goggles and a transmitter-crest that he wasn’t ever going to need. He got out of the gig when we got there, and bowed, and opened the door, and everywhere he stepped the crete went dry because of the personal shield he was wearing.

Kennor hugged Baijon and Baijon hugged him back hard like he knew that wasn’t none of us ever going to see each other again. Not if we was lucky.

Then Kennor hugged me, and that I didn’t expect. His arthame and one of his blasters dug into me in a lot of soft places.

“Run far, Butterflies-are-Free. Run fast.”

Then he stepped back and I stepped back and tripped over the doorsill to the highliner’s gig, and Baijon caught me and I sat down fast and started looking for the straps and by the time I found out there wasn’t any we was way above Mikasa and I couldn’t see Kennor Starbringer no more.

***

The shuttle moved like a lead pig. High Mikasa was synchronous over the capital and the port; we slid sideways along the gravity until High Mikasa vanished and Circle of Stars appeared.

I’d never seen another ship in orbit except in the hollyvids. For one, I never spent a lot of time dawdling in orbit, and for t’other and for sure I’ve never gone coasting up to another piece of high-iron just to say hello. In my line of work that could get you killed.

Circle was big. I’d expected that. She was also lit up so she glowed like a planet in sunlight and she was all glazed the same color, smooth and even and like somebody was taking care about it. No rust, no rot, no six colors of atmosphere seal peeling at different rates. And even if she was never going to hit atmosphere, she was smooth and sculpted and polished like somebody was going to look her over outside up close and personal.

We didn’t circle her half long enough for my liking. The pilot wrapped the gig around her until he lined up with her bay, wafted the ship into Circle’s tractor-field, and sat back while she pulled us in.

Paladin always told me the level of technological sophistication varies inversely with the distance from the center of civilization. Eventually he told me this was a fancy way of saying the farther out you go the poorer everything gets. Even if he’d made a big point of saying it was true the other way round too, I might of believed it but I wouldn’t of known it.

The Outfar was the edge of the Empire. Mikasa was the center of the Imperial Midworlds.

Circle was magic. We’d flown right in from cislunar space and it’d been through shields, not doors, and the bay was light and warm and pressurized. If there was anything like machinery on offer, it wasn’t nothing I recognized.

Baijon was traveling as Third Person Peculiar of House Starborn his own self. There was two other flunkies and a bunch of A-grav units there to meet the shuttle. What they knew about us was that Baijon was alMayne high-heat and I was his entourage. This was not the truth by hellflower standards—by them I was the high-heat and Baijon was my chief werewolf—but Baijon had no objections to “breaking the false laws of the chaudatu.”

Yeah.

Baijon spent whiles being rude to the rubes for expecting him to live up to their standards—it’s wonderful what you can get away with if you’ve got the political clout not to get arrested—whilst I ground my teeth and tried not to chew my nails and wondered how many days to Washonnet, home, and murder.

If Kennor meant to pin Baijon’s sudden death on me it’d have to be on alMayne, where he could trust everyone to act like honor-mad morons and he didn’t have to worry too hard about the Pax Imperador. Out here it was too damn likely some other citizen’d take the rap for me—at least if I had any say in things—and then Kennor’d be up to his arthame in honor-problems again.

Assuming Archangel didn’t get him first.

If I was managing to think like Kennor—or vicey-versy—I was safe for now.

At least, I thought so at the time.

Circle was like a downside city for sheer mass cubic but we didn’t have to walk far—which was just as well considering Kennor’s taste in footwear for alarthmes. Soon as we got out of the dock area a floater waffled up and the four of us—me, Baijon and two professional cowards—went for a little ride.

It was depressing. All this stuff just lying here and no place to sell it even if I could pry it loose.

We got to the rack and ruin Kennor thought appropriate to send his son and stalking horse home in, and the shippies hovered until I assured them that His Honorability was just waiting till they was out of sight before expiring with ecstasy. You could of parked my last ship in the main room and there was half-a-dozen more besides: rooms for sleeping, and eating, and wet-bathing, and a few other perversions I hadn’t had time to acquire. We had either a exterior cabin with eight meter high hullports (unlikely) or else the main cabin bulkhead referred the exterior hull pick-ups when everything else was shut off, like now. Anyway, according to the walls we’d already made the Jump to angeltown and I hadn’t felt a thing.

This was out of my league. I knew about rich and I knew about showing off how you had enough power to do what you damn pleased and devil take the TwiceBorn, but what I didn’t know was if I was ever going to understand what kind of sick depraved mind could afford to jump this much cubic to angeltown without a damn thing useful occupying it. And Baijon didn’t know a damn thing of any mortal use.

Who could I bully and who could I bribe and when was I being insulted? Who knew the truth and who was buying in on Kennor Starbringer’s chosen fiction?

Paladin could of told me. But instead of looking for him, I was going to alMayne where a bunch of rude strangers was waiting to punch my one-way ticket.

“Baijon-che-bai, we take lookaround, do gosee, je?” At least it’d take my mind off my problems.

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