Demons of the Past: Retribution

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A Fugitive Against an Empire

Imprisoned as a hostage or a bargaining chip, Sasham Varan must rely on his friends The Eonwyl, Sooovickalassa, and Guvthor Hok Guvthor to find proof of the impossible truth: that Prime Monitor Shagrath is one of the legendary Demons, manipulating the Empire and others to destroy every civilization across the Galaxy. Even if they succeed and Varan gains his freedom and the Zchorada as allies, they will still need to assemble the largest fleet the Galaxy has seen since the days of Atlantaea to face the most powerful force in the Galaxy: the Reborn Empire.

And if they do all of that, still they will have to somehow expose the truth to all the Empire, or everything will still fall. In the end, Varan knows, he, alone, will have to face Shagrath… with the fate of tens of thousands of worlds the price of victory or failure!

Varan:

I stumbled forward through the door, still somehow clinging to Tor‘s Mind Center like a man maintaining a precarious grip on the edge of a precipice. I turned, seeing the portal slide shut slowly, locking shut with a ringing clang of finality.

It was a measure of how much was still wrong with me that I found being locked in my prison cell a relief. At least this way I did not have to face the Zchorada.

It’s been years. Are you so weak, so incapable, that you can’t –

I cut that thought off as best I could, though the feeling of failure remained. I knew perfectly well that phobias don’t go away by themselves, and that the events of the past few years had pretty much minimized any chance of my getting therapy. The initial therapy work had done enough to make it possible for me to control the reaction, but the rest had been cut off when Taelin came and dragged me back to Oro for Prime Monitor Shagrath’s secret project.

I suppose I could have arranged for something during the year I commanded Teraikon, but Vick and I had our reasons for minimizing anyone’s chances for noticing anything unusual about my psychology . . . and fortunately there had been only one Chakron in the crew. Or maybe it wasn’t fortune; if Shagrath had selected me to be captain, he knew my limitations and could have catered to them, to keep me controlled. Knowing that I had a weakness would be useful to him.

Teraikon . . . I wondered if the Eönwyl had managed to receive that idea I sent her. I was pretty sure the mindscreens – which still pressed in like sand-weighted blankets on my consciousness – had disrupted the details. But hopefully she got enough.

Relax, I told myself, though part of me wanted to start giggling at that, and I knew if that happened I might never stop. Relax. In the middle of the most secure prison in the capital warren of the Zchoradan Meld?

I have to find some way. And I have to trust the Eönwyl. I’d seen her face; it had pained her terribly, but that instinct, that psionic ability to sense, somehow, the future consequences of actions, told her that leaving me here was the right choice to achieve our goals. Trust that. It’s saved her, and saved us, more than once.

I forced my head up, looked around. It wasn’t a single-room prison cell; the rooms were wide and low, though not too low for me. I was standing in what amounted to a receiving room, a place where I could read, move around, and so on but where people . . . Zchorada. . . would be able to enter via the door. Just the thought was enough to make me think about moving immediately to one of the two other rooms I could see, but my basic stubbornness kept me still, just looking. One room was clearly a bedroom, with an Imperial-style bed somewhat incongruously located against a wall that was obviously carved by Zchoradan architects. I could see the edge of a table and a chest of drawers as well – not that I have anything to put in them, I mused.

The other room was a bathing room, and that was tempting. My clothes clung to me with the bitter smell of my terrified sweat from the past hour or so, and I could most certainly use a shower to both clean me off and calm me down, help me to relax some of the tension.

The problem was going to be clothing. I had to assume my jailers would arrange something; they were neither stupid nor, if they were giving me what amounted to luxury quarters for a prisoner, planning on making my life particularly miserable. That made sense, anyway; while one faction might be willing to bargain with the Reborn Empire using me as the prize, the Vmee Zschorhaza had made it clear they intended to give my friends enough time, and if we did prove our case, the Zchorada had absolutely nothing to gain by mistreating me.

I emphasized that in my head, trying to hammer that in with Tor discipline. They have no reason at all to mistreat me. I am in no danger here. In some ways, I’m safer here than almost anywhere.

I did manage a chuckle as the truth of that struck home. I was safer here than almost anywhere, other than on faraway Earth in the temple of the Lady, or on board The Eönwyl with my friends. I sincerely doubted the Kaital would find this place, filled with psi-trained Zchorada and secure thoughtscreens, at all an attractive target until they’d really secured all the others. The bodiless psionic parasites probably could find a way to infiltrate this place, but I was pretty sure they hadn’t.

Yet.

The receiving room had a small kitchen-like area, though some of the designs were more appropriate for Zchorada than humans. What was important right now was that there was a water dispenser and cups. I filled and drained one in a single long pull, realizing just how dehydrated I must be, filling another and drinking it nearly as fast before taking a third to sip at more slowly.

The door opened, and despite my attempt at control I jumped, shrinking away and spilling half the water down my shirt front.

I couldn’t tell if the glittering, faceted eyes above the ripping mandibles held an expression of curiosity, contempt, or pity; the surprise entrance triggered my phobia and colored everything with the dark shade of fear.

“From your vessel,” the Zchoradan guard buzzed. “Cleared for your use now. Other materials may follow.”

He set down a moderately large bundle and withdrew; I could see as he did so that two other Zchorada, armed with rannai rifles, had been covering him on his entrance. They were taking no chances on my escaping. The psi-screens on this cell were double-strength, probably two superimposed field generators combined, and I wouldn’t be entirely surprised, given my exaggerated reputation, if there turned out to be one or two additional layers available in case I went berserk.

I didn’t like the thought of going berserk, especially since it was a lot more likely than I wanted to admit, here on a world filled with centipedal monsters whose simple presence filled me with terror. I muttered something under my breath and moved forward.

The bundle was held together with one of my sleeping robes, a large comfortable expanse of dark cloth. Inside . . .

I felt a tiny lift of my heart. My uniforms. I might be, officially, no longer part of the Mada, the Navy. . . but in my heart I was still Captain Sasham Varan, Imperial Navy, and always would be, and the Eönwyl knew it. There were more clothes – she’d been efficient about grabbing the right things, too. But in the middle was something harder . . .

Three things suddenly tumbled to the floor, one bouncing away with a rattling roll, the other two flopping immediately to a halt, and my spirits lifted a tiny bit farther. The Book of the Fall and my Tor soul-journal, the notes of training and meditation that had been taught to me by my masters; each disciple of Tor had to write his book from the beginning and continue it to the end, and mine was thick and stained and weather-beaten. . . and still had many pages left to fill. I picked both books up and clasped them tightly, then looked at the other object.

And all other things were suddenly less important, because there was the face I had come to care for more than anything else in the world. Sharp-edged, narrow, high-cheekboned, with brilliant blue eyes and hair like a sunburst, The Eönwyl smiled at me from the imagecube she had sent. I reached out and gently picked the cube up, turned it slowly, seeing my old love Diorre Jearsen, Taelin Mel’Tasne, and then The Eönwyl again, and slowly straightened up.

The terror was still there, waiting for me. It probably always would be, and I had no idea how I could survive the next few months.

But now I knew, somehow, that I would survive.

The Eönwyl:

Teraikon.” Guvthor repeated the name. The immense Thovian had an abstracted, pensive look on his brown-furred face.

“That’s what I got,” the Eönwyl agreed. “There was a lot more he was trying to say – something about Teraikon, something that would have told us exactly what we needed to do or find – but I couldn’t get that.”

An extremely intriguing clue, Dr. Sooovickalassa said, his telepathic voice echoing his interest. The R’Thann scientist tilted his head to one side, then the other, like a bird examining something carefully; the movement made his golden, crystal-tipped crest chime softly. Imperial Research Vessel Teraikon, in his command for a year before the Kaital disguised as his friend Frankel discovered our ruse.

“But given that the Prime Monitor reached the vessel and – insofar as we can determine – wiped the memories of the entire crew,” Guvthor said, “it is a most peculiar direction for us to be contemplating. Admittedly, we no longer have Sasham Varan in our midst, but any records would show that we are so heavily associated with him that we can hardly expect to just show up and be welcomed aboard the vessel. Moreover, even if we could, I am at something of a loss as to what we would be looking for.”

The Eönwyl frowned. It was a frustrating question. If only they’d let me ask him again.

But the way the Zchorada had decided on Varan’s imprisonment made that a non-starter. They did not want any additional evidence for the existence of the Kaital to be in any way traceable to Varan himself. If the Kaital existed, then the Eönwyl, Guvthor, and Vick would have to prove it using their own methods, with no chance of Varan affecting the outcome.

“All right,” she said finally, “let’s think about this. We didn’t know about the Kaital until we got to Thann’ta, so clearly there’s not some hidden cache of evidence as such. The battle between Varan and Frankel was completely rewritten, so the immediate evidence is gone.

“The key aspects of the vessel are going to be the vessel itself, the vessel’s activities, and one or more of the vessel’s crew. So . . . there might be something onboard that Sasham in retrospect realizes would be evidence. Something he saw Frankel do, or recorded in his log, or whatever that shows what was really going on.”

“That is certainly one possibility,” Guvthor said, and reached out to get himself a drinking container. The landing bay outfitted for his use was tolerable, but small for something as huge as the nearly five meter tall Guvthor. “Yet direct physical evidence would seem unlikely, given the impossible thoroughness of our adversary, and I cannot offhand imagine any log entry sufficient for proof which would not have seemed instantly and quite terrifyingly peculiar on its own.”

I would also similarly doubt anything in the vessel’s activities. Unlike Guvthor, I was aboard Teraikon for the entire duration of Captain Varan’s tenure. I observed all of the ship’s missions, and while one can posit military purposes for several of them, not one comes to mind as being in any way evidence of the Kaital. I can imagine some Kaital purposes being aided by some of those missions, but no such purposes which would be clearly what is being looked for. Even on Vick’s alien face a grimace was clear. And we are dealing with a being who is . . . he hesitated, his mind still obviously trying to finish accepting the truth, . . . who is capable of wielding powers that you call magic. No, physical evidence is out of the question, and the major records have already been altered, so no simple data will remain to prove our case.

“Then . . . it would be the people.”

Guvthor nodded. “I believe that is the only logical alternative. In some conversation or set of events, Captain Varan saw, heard, or deduced something which, in light of our current knowledge, provides evidence for the existence of the Kaital.” He smiled wryly, showing teeth the length of her fingers. “Unfortunately, he undoubtedly had hundreds, even thousands, of conversations over the course of that year to which neither I, nor even Dr. Sooovickalassa, were privy.”

That much seemed obvious, and she didn’t know what to do about it. Her gut-level senses – which she now knew were a manifestation of psi power – still insisted that this was the right general course of action, but apparently even those psionic powers were incapable of direct prophecy.

Still . . . “Let’s try this from another direction. What would constitute proof of the Kaital‘s existence, for a group like the Vmee Zschorza?”

The silence that met her question was not encouraging, yet she felt they were on the right track. “Come on, Guvthor, Vick, this is something we need to answer anyway. We’re supposed to bring back evidence that the Kaital exist; how in the name of the Empire are we going to do that if we have no idea of what they’d believe?”

“A fair question.” Guvthor looked at Vick, who was grooming his crest absently, lost in thought. “I am afraid it is not so easy to answer, however. The best evidence, naturally, would be one of the Kaital themselves. However, I cannot help but suspect that this is the sort of evidence we would be better off without.”

“You practice understatement on your planet, don’t you?” she said with an acid smile.

Understatement indeed, Vick’s telepathic voice said. Given what we have learned, bringing one into the center of the Vmee Zschorza might simply be aiding in the destruction of the Meld. Still, this leaves the problem of how to prove the existence of a bodiless, mind-controlling parasite – or, perhaps, of Viedraverion, the being currently going by the name of Shagrath.

“That’s true. If we proved he existed – as the monster we claim he is – our other claims would probably be given weight, too.” She thought about it a moment. “But again, I can’t see how we could actually do that.”

“It is a most interesting puzzle, I must admit,” Guvthor said; his solemn expression belied his light and cheerful tone. “The one set of creatures have no bodies of their own and can impress whatever thoughts or memories they want onto a body if they were to leave it and it were still capable of life. The other being is something vastly more powerful than any individual Kaital, is apparently immortal, and able to disguise itself as almost anything. It would seem, therefore, that physical evidence per se is not possible.”

She got up, pacing around the shuttle bay turned cabin. “All right, no direct physical evidence . . . how about records? Troop movements, orders given that framed certain people, that kind of thing?”

You forget, Vick said coldly, they are not fools, and are not limited to the inside of their own skulls. They were waiting for us, looking for us, on Meletta; Shagrath undoubtedly directs them telepathically, from across half a galaxy if need be. There will be no obvious traces.

“And he is obviously aware of the potential to betray himself if he acts on news that he could not yet have obtained,” Guvthor pointed out. “He prepared an excuse for his sudden departure to intercept Teraikon, and I have no doubt he deliberately does not act on things until after the news has reached him through normal channels – although knowing ahead of time would permit him to spend a considerable amount of time thinking about his exact response. So we are unlikely to find any direct evidence there, either.”

The three sat in silence for some moments.

“All right,” the Eönwyl said finally. “That seems to leave . . . what?”

“Hm. No physical evidence. No direct records.”

Indirect evidence. It would have to be strong, though.

“What kind of indirect evidence would we be talking about?” she asked.

Multiple examples of events that might happen, taken singly, but that all together are too improbable to believe as a natural sequence. For example . . . Vick paused, and she could sense the difficulty of finding a useful instance of the thing the R’Thann was trying to describe. For example, imagine that at the beginning of a battle, you see a seller of flowers at the edge of the battlefield, retreating as the combat begins. By itself, such an event means nothing, and undoubtedly something like it has happened.

But what would you think, Eönwyl, Vick continued, with that razor-smile, what would you think if you studied the records of a thousand battles and found that at each and every one of them, a flower-seller was present at the very beginning?

“Statistical anomalies?” she murmured to herself. The idea made sense, but just pushed the problem down a level; what kind of anomalies would one look for in the entire Galaxy of events?

The words caused Guvthor to freeze, a dainty snack the size of her head now immobile and forgotten in his hand. Slowly his head turned. “Dr. Sooovicklassa?”

Yes. . . yes, that could be it.

“What? What could be it?”

“There was a scientist on Teraikon, one of a unique species called the Mydrwyll . . . Hmmmseeth, that was her . . . or his, their species is sometimes difficult to pin down that way . . . name. He, I suppose. He was . . . rrrGH, by the Trees my brain refuses to cooperate . . .”

A theoretical cultural sentiologist, Vick said, with a specialty in progression replication and modeling.

“Cultural sentiologist . . .?”

“A student of cultures . . . and that specialty means that his interest was in the models of the cultures themselves. Yes, yes, I do believe we have hit upon it.”

This is both good news and bad, Vick thought slowly.

She did not like the way that sounded. “How do you mean?”

Vick turned and paced away, facing the stern of the vessel, gazing into nothingness. The current political climate makes it uncomfortable for many species. Hmmmseeth is likely to have returned home.

“Well, that is good news,” she said. “Then we don’t have to figure out how we’re going to get on board one of the jewels of the Reborn Empire’s fleet. What’s the catch?”

Vick turned, and his sharp-toothed smile was anything but comforting. Mydrwyll is now part of the R’Thann Meritocracy. They joined in the interim between Hmmmseeth’s entry into the Empire and now.

She felt like kicking the bulkhead. “And the Empire’s going to have major forces all the way through all your systems, wherever your people can’t face them in large numbers.”

“Indeed,” Guvthor said. “And of course we have a very long way to go.”

“Then I’d better go change our course immediately,” she said, and started striding towards the door. “All we have to do is get to a system thousands of light years away, sneak through a cordon probably coordinated by Kaital to let no one in or out, then locate one Mydrwyll out of the entire population, find out if he has the evidence we need, convince him to come with us if he does – and then escape!” She smiled. “Why, we’re practically done already.”

Taelin:

He checked himself in the all-view mirror again. Long gold hair pulled back in the one-tail style – conservative and nonintrusive. Formal business flow-cloak over sharp-cut shirt and pants – muted shades with just a touch of gold edging. Gray polished boots, formal pistol discreetly displayed. No crest of any Family, Lesser or Greater, let alone Five. That should do.

Taelin met his own green-blue gaze and focused, taking a few deep breaths. One of the most dangerous moves in the game – for both of us – starts.

Heart should be going faster than normal. Natural for me to be nervous. Borell’s set everything in motion as we agreed, all the right pressures have been applied, the meeting is arranged, but I know Lukhas . . . and I know how much things have changed since I was declared kattasi. I know that it’s not just Borell I have to fool, or the part Lukhas is playing I have to convince.

So play the role. Be the role. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial.

He glanced down at the glittering wristlet. At least I have your protection for a little while longer. But maybe not long. With a nod, he turned and left.

Taelin Ardan (once Mel’Tasne) strode down the landing ramp of Valabacal. A close observer would notice that there was something just a little too stiff in the walk, the shoulders and head too rigidly high – the look of a man trying to look easy and confident but, in actuality, tense and afraid. Which isn’t that hard a look to pull off, when you are tense and afraid – even if my reasons are completely different. The real challenge is in making it readable by others of the Five without looking exaggerated. I can’t afford any suspicion right now.

Waiting at the bottom was Borell Hakanda Dellitama, his father in law, former (and hopefully future) Observer of Fanabulax, and currently his Advocate for reinstatement to the Five. Many could mistake the black-haired Dellitama’s broad bulk for fat, and had done so on unfortunate occasion, but while Borell was inarguably fond of his dinner table and certainly far from slender, most of that mass was muscle.

Taelin read approval in the brief nod. “A good choice,” Borell said, turning to lead the way. “No assumptions of acceptance. Understated in every way, so they could bring you in and send you away without being terribly obvious about it. You may just make it, boy.”

“I’d better,” he said, smiling politely. “I don’t make idle threats, remember.”

“Oh, I remember, Taelin. Though you would be making a terrible mistake, I assure you.” The tone of Borell’s voice indicated that he would not at all mind Taelin making terrible mistakes.

“Maybe. But let’s hope there’s no reason for us to find out.”

As they got into Borell’s Streetwing, the older man gave him a stony glare. “You do realize, boy, that the decision in the end is not mine? I have done everything I could to advance your case – and I will be the first to admit you have followed through well on your end. But the ultimate decision belongs with the Emperor and your brother, and I can threaten or bribe neither of those.”

“Understood. And if nothing comes to light in this discussion that shows you’ve missed anything, then I’ll take your end of the bargain as filled, whether or not kattasi is nullified.” He could see Borell relax fractionally. And how much of this is your play-acting, “Uncle”? Were you really worried at all? What do you and Shagrath really want?

Taelin pushed those thoughts away as much as he could. He presumed the bracelet prevented his mind from being read, but he might be stripped of it in the next hour or so, and his mind must be focused on the appropriate thoughts.

“Very well,” Borell said as the Streetwing took off. Taelin started to lean back, then noticed that Borell was not heading for either the Palace or the Navy base. “Uncle?”

“Discretion, boy,” answered Borell. “Given your antics since you were first found kattasi, this decision and ceremony – if any ceremony takes place – will be held far from the center. Your audience is already arranged. You will meet both the Emperor and Lukhas at the Mel’Tasne lodge in the Wainthai Preserve.”

“Wainthai?” he repeated. Distant indeed. “Even in this thing that’s a four-hour flight!”

“The Mission of Importance, which is the name of ‘this thing’,” his uncle said with some satisfaction, “is much more than she appears.” The Streetwing tilted up, climbing higher and higher. “Once we clear most of the atmosphere, her small onboard DD-drive will take us the rest of the way in moments. We will land at the private pad in no more than twenty minutes.”

As he would have been expected to do, he glanced over at his uncle with new respect. “And you can pilot one this close, and that well? You surprise me again, Uncle. I hadn’t realized you’d had the time to master DD piloting in a major grav field.”

“I’m old enough to have done a lot of things you haven’t done yet, boy, so don’t forget it!” Despite the hard tone, Taelin could see a very small smile at the compliment on Borell’s face. A perfect actor, this doppelganger. Or is it more that it’s the original, just somehow controlled or changed? They had too little information, and that was supremely dangerous.

True to his word, Borell landed Mission of Importance on the Mel’Tasne private estate exactly nineteen minutes after their conversation. Imperial Guardsmen surrounded the ship within seconds of landing and escorted the two into the lodge.

Emperor Galata Nin Salrein did not rise as Taelin and Borell entered. The black eyes regarded Taelin curiously from the dark-wood face, but other than that the Emperor showed no movement.

Lukhas showed very little more reaction. He was dressed in full formal uniform of Imperial Intelligence, blue with black accents and the pure white of his rank wheel showing that he was White Controller, the head of Intelligence. Around his neck, hanging so it rested in the center of his chest, was the crest of the Mel’Tasne family, a seven-sided golden shield flanked by two swords of pure emerald. He’s here in both capacities – head of Intelligence and of one of the Five.

“Borell Dellitama,” the Emperor said, as they stopped at the required distance, “who is this you bring before us?”

Borell bowed low, in the traditional way; Taelin made sure to match him. “Your Imperial Majesty,” Borell said, “to you now I present one who was once known to you, and who has been forgotten, and who wishes to be known again.”

The Emperor frowned, as the ancient traditions required, and did not look at Taelin. “Borell Dellitama, a member of the Five you are, and so we welcome you. Yet your words may not be welcome, for once we have decreed one is to be forgotten in our presence, then they cannot be easily recalled.”

“My Family and I know this well, Majesty,” Borell said, and they both bowed again. “Yet as the lowest may climb to the heights and be seen by you, is it not written that those who have fallen may also rise into the light once more?” Those words of ritual were, Taelin knew, ancient, and taken from the Book of the Fall, Sasham’s holy text and the foundation of most of the Reborn Empire’s tradition.

“It is,” the Emperor agreed. “Do you then believe that what has fallen is now once more risen, as the Towers themselves shall rise one day?”

“I do, Majesty.”

“Then recall to our memory this name of the fallen.”

“Majesty, I present to you Taelin Ardan, once Mel’Tasne, who rises again to your sight and would be Mel’Tasne again.”

Now the Emperor looked at him, and the gaze was . . . complex. Hard, yet warm. He can’t be the same man, I know. But I . . . I really want to believe he is. “We do recall a young man of that name. A young man once much loved, a strong support of his family, a light of our people. But the Mel’Tasne themselves had told us the light was gone, and bade us forget him. Is this not true?”

“Majesty, it is,” Lukhas spoke for the first time, and he had not yet looked upon Taelin since the ritual had begun. “I have now no brother, but the loss is still a pain in our hearts, and my friend Borell now speaks the name of the one gone. I look to you for guidance, Majesty. What do you see? May we look again for that which was forgotten?”

“You ask much, yet much is owed. We shall look, and find guidance.” The Emperor stood, and Lukhas stood with him, and followed directly behind, so Taelin could not see him, only tiny flickers of movement that the Emperor was not quite wide enough to block.

The Emperor stopped only a meter in front of Taelin, looking down. “Speak. Who are you, that would be recalled to the sight of the Empire?”

“I am Taelin Ardan, born Mel’Tasne, Majesty.”

“Your face and voice recall themselves to our memory, Taelin. So, also, do they recall pain and failure and shame.” He looked to Borell. “Speak, then. Tell us what deeds he has done, that the shame might be erased.”

“He has taken a burden which was mine,” Borell said, carefully. Something which, if everyone were what they seemed, would be a risk to admit. A member of the Five generally can’t just delegate certain tasks without notifying the Emperor to begin with. “He has taken that burden, and borne it without complaint or stint, and has performed in full equal to my own efforts. No, I speak not truth; he has surpassed my own efforts in this year.”

“By the laws, he is still bonded to your niece, to Treyuusei Dellitama,” the Emperor said slowly. “Thus we see that you had reason to care for his fall, and for his redemption in our eyes. To care, however, is not to redeem. What burden did you give him, that he has discharged so well that you claim he has surpassed one of the Heads of the Five?”

“For this year and more he has been Observer of Fanabulax, Majesty.”

“A weighty and fearsome duty you risked on the shoulders of one fallen, Borell Dellitama. If we judge him unfit, you recognize that this shall be weighed against you, as well?”

Borell winced as he bowed. “I do.”

“I see that you do. In that case, we shall commence to the judgement,” the Emperor said.

Then the Emperor’s formality disappeared. “Taelin, it is good to see you before me again, and with some hope that it is not a final and tragic time. It pained me nearly as much as your own blood to send out that decree.”

“I’m sorry, Majesty.”

“Sorry? I should think you would be, son, but I need to understand why. . . and why you think you can come back now.”

“Well, Majesty . . . I . . .”

“Stop!” The Emperor held up his hand. “Before you speak, let me warn you: I wish you to be entirely honest with me. I know perfectly well that Borell Dellitama would not have one so fallen before me so swiftly – if, indeed he chose to give one who had so hurt his favorite niece so much as a single chance. So tell me what led to your fall, yes, but also tell me most truly how you come to be before me again.”

I’ve seen what the Emperor has allowed. He can’t be the same man any more. Yet. . . somehow he is. That made this even more dangerous. The game was being played at multiple levels on all sides, and if he reacted incorrectly to the Emperor on any of those levels the game might be up.

He made a decision. “Well, as to the latter, Majesty, I blackmailed Borell into giving me the chance.”

Borell gave a choking growl of anger, while Taelin was almost sure he heard a snort of repressed laughter from behind the Emperor.

The Emperor himself smiled. “I had rather expected it was something of the sort. With what could you blackmail him?”

Taelin let the bitter expression wash over his face. “The truth about who works at Fanabulax . . . and why they stay.”

“Ah.”

The Emperor was silent for a moment. “Go on, then. Tell us how it all happened.”

The basic story – of the breakdown that led to his fall – was easy enough. By now he’d immersed himself in that role so much that he could believe it for a while. “But in the end I couldn’t just drop it all, so I tried to follow Sasham, what had happened – and that led me to The Eönwyl.”

The Emperor closed his eyes and sighed. “Yes. I see where that would have taken you.”

“And I realized I was just tired of being a wandering nobody who used to be somebody, that I had better things to do for my family and my friends than just fly races and spend Eternals like water maintaining a ship that used to do more important things.”

“And so you decided to find some way to come back. And took, I will agree, one of the most difficult jobs in the Empire to prove you were ready.” He studied me closely. “You have been on Fanabulax a year, yet you still seem . . . somehow . . . yourself, Taelin. In a way I would not expect.”

“Oh, that,” he said in as casual a way as he could manage. “I did have one edge – besides using Uncle Borell’s hard-as-hullmetal approach to my advantage. This,” he pulled up his sleeve and detached the armlet. “Wearing it completely relieved whatever that depressing sensation is.” He bowed deeply and extended the armlet. “I present it to you, of course, Majesty.”

In that moment, he saw the Emperor instinctively start to shrink away, saw an instantaneous glint of distaste and perhaps fear, before the familiar gentle look returned. “No, Taelin,” the Emperor said, shaking his head. “We have seen the scans and know that it is one of those artifacts which is – for now – beyond our science to analyze. Therefore its only use is to serve one person, and as you have held it, we see no reason you cannot retain it.”

He turned and gestured, and Lukhas stepped forward. “Lukhas Kaje Mel’Tasne, we have spoken with this one, and we believe he has traveled the great circle. Perhaps the hardest step of all was in finding truths which we, ourselves, find most distasteful.”

Lukhas looked at Taelin. “While you were not of us, what dishonor have you committed, that may return to our name?”

“Well . . .” he said, reluctantly, “. . . I have failed to win a few races that otherwise I might have.”

Even Borell cracked a smile at that. Lukhas chuckled. “I suppose that I could hear worse. Anything else?”

He let his smile fade. “I have supported the betrayal of our own people by keeping Fanabulax running, Lukhas. I have not undone the Contracts, and permitted people to live as slaves in all but name.” Another smile, this one bitter as raw samahei bark. “But it seems that is not dishonor here.”

That is what I needed to see,” the Emperor said quietly, sadly. “That not all of your heart was gone.” He looked at Borell, who was staring at him. “We must address this later. It seems we are now at the brink of war, and this is not the time . . . but this evil we do now will rebound upon us, if we do not prepare to right it, and soon. Do not forget this.”

Taelin found himself confused. Is this an act? Is this real? Those words were the old Emperor, the man he had loved as a child, the one he had not seen in the last year or two as the Empire became a darker, harder place under his directives.

Even as he wondered, he let a reaction of hope and wonder surface. “M . . . Majesty?”

“Do you think I like what has happened, Taelin? I lie awake at nights wondering about it. Wondering if Shagrath and – to be honest – your brother have too much fear, too much suspicion within them. Ever since you left it has been worse, and I think you were the heart of our people. I know you have seen that our Empire is not as bright as it should be . . . and I count on you to help brighten it, one small step at a time.”

He turned back to Lukhas. “Head of the Family Mel’Tasne, I have seen, and I remember. You have seen, and you have heard. Is it your will to forgive the one who was lost, return him to your home and hearts and name?”

Lukhas’ voice was not entirely steady, and there was a smile waiting to break through. “It is, Majesty.”

“Then we see you, we remember you, and you are recalled to our presence and our people, Taelin Ardan Mel’Tasne. Rare is the return. Wear the name proudly, wear it well.”

“Th . . . thank you, Majesty! Thank you!”

“It warms our hearts to know you have found yourself . . . while hardening yourself to face the truths of the world. Harden yourself no more, and we will speak again soon.”

As he turned to leave, he gestured to Borell. “You will accompany me, Borell. The graver matters we have touched upon require explanation and discussion.”

Taelin restrained a grin. I still don’t know what’s going on, exactly. But even thinking that Borell will get part of what he deserves for Fanabulax is enough to smile about.

“Welcome back, brother,” Lukhas said, and embraced him. Taelin did not miss the tiny, quick glance around as he hugged his older brother back.

“Thanks, Lukh. I . . . I’m so sorry.”

Lukhas sighed. “I know. I just wish you’d let us get through to you. How do you think the rest of us . . .” he broke off. “Now it’s my turn to say I’m sorry. We kicked you out, we pretty much said everything that we were thinking then.” He was walking around, looking idly at the scenery outside the windows. “Now that you’re back, let’s look forward. There’s a lot that needs doing, and by the Emperor I can use your help with it, if you’re willing.”

He’s waiting for something. “Of course, Lukh. But . . .”

“Don’t worry, don’t worry. Even now I’m not going to just throw you out into the Empire without a few minutes to catch your breath. I didn’t even hint at what was going on to Mom or Mishel, and especially not to Trey . . .” He suddenly grinned, then spun around, continuing, “. . . since she already knows exactly what’s up. But she couldn’t be here.”

“We’re secure, then?”

“I was waiting to make sure the Emperor’s flyer cleared the perimeter, and for scans to make triple-sure that there wasn’t anything left in this room. We’re secure.”

“Lukh . . . that really sounded like the Emperor.”

“Oh, it did. Very convincing. But you haven’t been in on the conversations I’ve had with him.” Lukh looked grim now. “It all started slowly enough, but once they figured I no longer had the slightest care for the world’s idealism, they slowly let me see more and more. Yes, the Emperor is still more a voice for moderation in those secret conferences, but trust me, Taelin; I can tell an act when I see it, and I’m very good at reading the command dynamics. It’s not the Emperor giving the orders, it’s Shagrath. He’s the one I’m trading blades with, and he’s very good.”

“Then why the act?”

“I think you know why, little brother,” Lukhas said.

“To see if I was playing a game,” Taelin answered. “They knew the real Taelin couldn’t, or shouldn’t break so badly he didn’t want to hope, and so how I reacted to the thought that Borell was just a cynical bitter old tzil instead of being the real representative of the Empire was key.”

“And believe me, I am very grateful that you figured that out and gave them just the right response. Of course . . . now the game gets more dangerous.”

“Even with us all together?”

“Even so. Whatever’s changing people, it hasn’t reached us yet, but no telling when it might – until we can figure out what it is. Together we’re also easier to target. Yes, that might also make them relax a bit – the old ‘we can attend to them any time’ – but we can’t count on that.”

“Here,” Taelin said, and pulled the armlet off, handing it to his brother.

Lukhas looked down at the sparkling thing in his hand, startled. “Are you serious?”

Taelin sagged back against the cushions in relief. “Thank the Seven.”

Lukhas blinked, then grinned. “Ahhh, very very good little brother. So you think that this thing will reveal their presence?”

“I think it might kill them if they held it for long. Hurt them somehow, that’s for sure. I wish I could show you the expression Borell had when he touched it – and I saw it for a split-second on the Emperor’s face, too. But I had to know for sure that you were . . . yourself.”

Lukhas slid the armlet on, clicked it, admired it. “It is beautiful, and Borell’s report mentioned it was a portable mindscreen. But . . .” he unsnapped it, threw the glittering artifact back. “You keep it.”

“But you’re –”

“If any of us get caught, Taelin, all of us are done for. We know that, all three of us. So unless you’ve got three of those, two of us are going to be potentially vulnerable. In my case, I have two reasons not to wear it.”

“Oh?”

“First, if I suddenly start wearing it, they’ll have to be more suspicious of me. Without a personal mindscreen, at least in theory I’m easy to deal with. Wearing that thing, if it’s anything nearly as powerful as you imply, will completely block me out, even the sensation of my presence. Our adversaries seem to rely on psi power, and I can’t help but assume that this means they’ll be ten times more watchful of someone they can’t even sense. And I can’t afford ten times the scrutiny.”

“And second?”

Lukh grinned. “I, little brother, am already protected some.”

“The Monitor conditioning . . .?”

“With some additional enhancements by my own people, yes. And I got to test it on an action against a real psionic a few weeks ago on Gestaraya. His mental commands tried to affect me but I could easily sense the attempt and kick him out of my head. How well that would work against our real adversaries . . . I don’t know. But it’s better than nothing, and the best part is that it makes perfect sense from Shagrath’s point of view.”

“So,” Taelin said, relaxing for the first time in months, “what now?”

“Now, little brother, we have to start preparing for the endgame.”

“But we don’t even know what we’re dealing with!”

“Not yet, no. And we don’t have our friend Sasham, yet. But when we do know, I think we’ll have to act very fast, if we’re going to act at all.

“So we have to be ready to act in a way that affects the whole Empire, and to do it fast.”

Lukhas began to outline the plan, and Taelin felt tension coming back . . . but it was a good tension, the sensation of being with the Family again, of getting ready to fight alongside the people he cared about, and he smiled even as Lukhas told him how he might not survive.

I’m home again.

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