"I haven't had such a good read in the subgenre since I was cutting my teeth on Heinlein and Poul Anderson and the like!"--Katherine Kurtz
I. GYFFERAN FARSPACE: NIGHT'S-BEAUTIFUL-DAUGHTER
SUIVI POINT: ENTIBORAN RESISTANCE HEADQUARTERS; WARHAMMER
OUT ON the farthest edge of Gyfferan-controlled space, the texture of the universe stretched and altered. Like a shadow against the stars, the flattened black teardrop shape of a Deathwing raider emerged from hyperspace. Minutes later a second ship appeared. This one displayed the bright colors and needle-sharp outline of a Space Force surface-to-hyperspace courier. Together, the mismatched pair began their realspace run toward the heart of the Gyfferan system.
On board Night's-Beautiful-Daughter--for so the Deathwing's log recordings had named the Magebuilt vessel--Mistress Llannat Hyfid wandered about the empty corridors, trying in vain to escape her own increasing inner tension.
Llannat was a small woman, dark-haired and brown-skinned, and her appearance these days implied enough contradictions to make anyone tense. She wore the black broadcloth tunic and trousers that were an Adept's formal garb; but her boots were Space Force standard issue, and instead of an Adept's plain wooden staff she carried the short,silver-bound ebony rod that was a Magelord's weapon and badge of rank. The crew members on board the Deathwing avoided her as much as possible, out of a respect that verged on superstitious awe.
The clothes and the staff don't help even a little with the main problem, she thought glumly. Her wanderings had taken her to the ship's galley, where the smell of fresh cha'a emanated from a bulky, squarish urn. We've got to make it to Gyffer without getting blown up by system defenses programmed to fire on "nervous."
Llannat had given the order for the hyperspace transit herself. At least, everybody else on board the Deathwing said that she had given it. She didn't recall doing any such thing; she'd been deep in a trance at the time, observing the structure of the universe through a Magelord's eyes.
And now I've got the whole damned crew looking at me' like they expect me to go crazy or work a miracle, or maybe both at once ... .
She abandoned her search for a mug and pressed the heels of her hands against her temples.
"I have a headache," she said aloud.
Her words sounded flat and dull against the echo-absorbent walls of the Deathwing's galley. She saw a movement in the doorway: Lieutenant Vinhalyn, Space Force reservist and scholar of Mageworlds language and culture, the acting captain of Night's-Beautiful-Daughter.
"We brought the emergency medikit over from Naversey," Vinhalyn said. "There may be something in there that can help you out."
"I don't think so. It's not that kind of an ache."
"If you're sure ..."
"I'm sure," she told him. "I'm a medic, remember?"
The expression on his face made it plain that he hadn't, in fact, remembered. Llannat shook her head, resigned.
"Never mind," she said. "I have trouble remembering it myself sometimes. Believe me, life was a whole lot easier when I was just Ensign Hyfid of the Space Force Medical Service."
Of course, that was before I started hearing voices thatweren't there and seeing things that hadn't happened yet and coming loose from my body while I was drifting off to sleep at night. Nobody asked me if I wanted all of that, but I got it anyway ... and the next thing I knew, there I was on a mountaintop on Galcen, with Master Ransome himself asking me if I wanted to join the Guild and be an Adept.
Llannat sighed. And like a fool, I said yes.
Vinhalyn looked at her. The scholar-reservist was an older man whose active service dated back to the end of the First Magewar, and he deferred to Llannat as he had to the Adepts of those earlier days. "If there's anything I can do to help ..."
"Not really," she said. "But thanks. Let me know when we make contact with Gyfferan Inspace Control."
Vinhalyn nodded and left.
Llannat watched him go, then went back to looking for a cup. When she found one, on a shelf where a half-dozen of the standard-issue plastic mugs from Naversey stood among the Deathwing's shorter, rounder ones, she poured herself some cha'a from the galley urn. What sort of hot drink the Mageworlders had brewed in the big metal pot she didn't know--maybe Vinhalyn did; she'd have to ask him about it sometime--but the Daughter's current crew had managed to adapt the filtration setup to produce cha'a of hair-curling strength.
She sipped at the steaming liquid. The Professor would have known what they used to brew on board the old Deathwings, she thought. He probably drank enough of it in his day.
"What's this 'probably' nonsense?" she muttered to herself. "The Prof owned this ship, galley and all."
He hadn't just owned it; that was the problem. The Professor--whose true name she had never learned, and doubted that anyone living had ever heard--had been a Magelord himself before he abandoned sorcery and gave his oath to the ruling House of Entibor. What kept Llannat Hyfid awake during the night and made her pace the ship's corridors during the day was knowing that the Professor had intended Night's-Beautiful-Daughter for her.
First his staff, she thought. Then his ship. What other little bequests does he have for me that I haven't found yet?
The original legacy had come to Llannat blamelessly enough. She'd lost her own staff in the fighting on Darvell, the same day the Professor had died, and Beka Rosselin-Metadi--in an impatient, almost unthinking gesture--had given her the dead man's staff as a replacement. Master Ransome, who hated the Magelords as he hated nothing else in the civilized galaxy, wasn't likely to be pleased with Llannat if he ever found out. In the end, however, an Adept's choice of staff was a personal decision. Not even the Master of the Guild could force her to alter it.
The ship was something else again. The Professor had emptied Night's-Beautiful-Daughter to vacuum and left her to drift. When the derelict raider turned up in the Mageworlds Border Zone, the pilot and copilot were still on board--five hundred years after the Professor had cut their throats and left Llannat Hyfid a message written in their blood.
"Adept from the forest world: bring this message to She-who-leads ... ."
Those were the words as Llannat remembered them, from the waking dream in which she had relived the Professor's deed. Lieutenant Vinhalyn, however, had translated the blood-scrawled characters somewhat differently: "Find the Domina."
But the Domina was dead.
"Domina of Entibor," said Beka Rosselin-Metadi. She jerked the twisted iron tiara out of her hair and threw it across the room onto the rumpled bedsheets. On Suivi Point appearances were everything; the acting government of Entibor-in-Exile kept its front office ready for official visitors, even early and unexpected ones, by throwing all the clutter into the living quarters at the back. "Leader of the Second Resistance. Hope of the Galaxy. It stinks like a load of rotten fish guts."
"Gently, Captain," Nyls Jessan advised. Beka's copilot and number-one gunner was lean and fair-haired, with greyeyes and pleasant, if ordinary, features. He smiled at her. "Gently. When did you ever smell rotten fish guts, anyway?"
"Sapne, in the main port-market. I told you the place was a pestilential sinkhole, remember?"
"I remember." Jessan moved up behind her and began taking the pins out of her long yellow hair. "If you're thinking about Tarveet of Pleyver, the comparison is certainly apt. But you don't have to like him--"
"I know, I know," said Beka, as the intertwined plaits came free and fell down one by one. "'Just work with him.' Mother used to say the same thing."
Jessan kept on unbraiding her hair; his fingers moved warmly against her neck, making it hard for her to concentrate. With an effort, she gathered her thoughts and went on.
"How did Tarveet get to Suivi Point, anyway? Why the hell couldn't the Mages have snapped him up on Galcen along with the rest of the Grand Council?"
"That would have been nice," agreed Jessan. "I suspect that the esteemed councillor was already here visiting his money when everything fell apart."
"Taking some cash out for a walk, more likely." Beka frowned. "I wonder who he was planning to buy with it."
"Before the Mageworlds invaded? He could have been after almost anybody." Jessan paused, and his hands came to rest lightly on Beka's shoulders. She leaned back against him; his breath caught for a second before he continued, "At least now he's willing to give some of it to us."
"And we can't afford to be choosy." She sighed. "I know. Tarveet needs a Resistance fleet to protect his investments for him, and we need all the backers we can get. But a fleet's the only thing his money is going to buy; I hope he isn't expecting me to come along with it."
She felt Jessan's grip tighten and then relax. "If the esteemed councillor from Pleyver makes that particular mistake," her copilot said, his High Khesatan accent more marked than usual, "then I will disabuse him of the notion."
"Poor Nyls." She shook her head. "I do believe that Tarveet managed to get under your skin."
"Well ... somewhat."
"'Somewhat.'" Beka turned to face Jessan. In spite of herself, she smiled. "You do a really good look of exquisite disdain, did you know that?"
"Just one of my many talents," he said.
"Ah." She regarded him thoughtfully. "You have others?"
"So I'm told."
"That's nice." Her finger traveled down his shirtfront, teasing open the fasteners along the way. "Tell me about them."
"I play an excellent hand of cards," he said. He reached out and undid the top button of the quilted jacket Beka wore to keep out the chilly air of the Suivan domes. "I'm a passable shot with a blaster ... a fair pilot ... and a good enough medic in most cases to keep my patients breathing."
He undid the other buttons one by one as he spoke. Beka shivered. She had dressed in haste that morning--after Tarveet's comm call had pulled her out of bed cursing--and wore nothing beneath the jacket except her bare skin.
"You never learned all those on Khesat," she said.
"Only the cards," he told her. "My acquaintances back home considered me a shamefully unaccomplished fellow."
"Foolish of them." She took a step closer, and rested one hand on his chest where the shirt fell open. "Didn't you learn anything else on Khesat?"
He slipped his hands around her waist under the open jacket, and bent his head to lick gently at the hollow of her throat. "One or two things, before I left."
Beka laughed again, and pressed harder against him. "I thought so," she said. "Tell me."
"Oh, flute-playing, flower arrangement ..." His mouth traveled further downward. " ... frivolous versification ... and the finer points of ..."
The comm link on the bedside table sounded--a piercing squeal, far different from its usual restrained beeping. Jessan didn't look up. The comm link sounded again.
"Hell." Beka pulled a hand free and picked up the link. "That's Warhammer's private signal. Something's wrong atthe spacedocks." She keyed on the link. "Rosselin-Metadi here."
"LeSoit here, Captain." Warhammer's number-two gunner sounded agitated about something. "I think you'd better come out to the ship."
By now Jessan had worked his way down past her collarbone. She mastered her breathing with some difficulty and said over the link, "Can it wait?"
"I don't really think it can, Captain."
She bit her lip. "All right. I'll be there in a few minutes. Rosselin-Metadi, out."
Beka keyed off the link. Jessan stopped his downward explorations and stood for a moment with his head pressed against her neck.
Then he sighed and stepped away. "Duty calls."
"Duty has a rotten sense of humor." Beka was already buttoning up the quilted jacket. That done, she pulled a fastener out of one pocket and gathered her hair into a loose tail down her back. Redoing the formal braids would take more time than she wanted to spare. "Hand me that damned tiara, and let's go see what's got Ignac' buzzing us on the private code."
In Namport, in a windowless room above Freling's Bar, a young woman slept with her back against a locked door. She moved restlessly in her sleep, then lay still for a few seconds, opened her eyes, and sat up.
Klea Santreny was thin and small-boned, with a tangle of curly, light brown hair; she would have seemed more girl than woman still, at twenty Standard years, except that working for Freling was no way to stay young. Her grey eyes had shadows under them like bruises, and cheap bangle bracelets on her left wrist hid the old, pale scars beneath.
She had fallen asleep on the coarse-piled carpet, with her day-pack tucked underneath her head for a pillow. Her Adept's staff, a piece of iron-hard grrch wood that had begun its career as a broomstick, lay on the floor beside her. A few feet away, in the center of the room, a tawny-haired young man in a beige coverall was moving through the sequencesof what looked at first sight to be a slow, graceful dance. He held a plain staff of blond wood in both hands.
Klea drew her knees up and sat for a while watching him. The last time she'd seen Owen--that was all the name she had for him, though she knew he had a family somewhere on Mage-occupied Galcen--he'd been lying on the room's only bed. His body had been bruised and swollen, and there had been blood on his face and his clothes. But now the marks of ill-usage were gone, and he moved easily, without flinching.
She wondered where he'd been and what he'd done. And how he'd done it; he hadn't brought the staff into the locked room with him, any more than he'd brought those transitory bruises. "Going out of body," Owen had called it, when he first told her what he needed to do. As far as she could tell, he hadn't left the room to do it.
He finished the sequence and turned toward her, his attention seeming to come back from concentration on something not visible in the here-and-now. Hazel eyes regarded Klea with a thoughtful, measuring expression.
"I should have thanked you before," he said.
She looked down and away, toward the corner of the room where the ugly carpet met the peeling mirror on the long wall opposite the bed. "You don't need to do that. The room's yours until morning--you paid for it."
"I'd never have gotten in here if you hadn't brought me." He frowned. "And this is not a place you should have had to come back to."
"It's not so bad," Klea said. Gratitude wasn't something she'd encountered much of, and she wasn't certain how she felt about it.
"Don't lie," Owen said. "You're not one of Freling's hookers any longer. You're an apprentice to the Guild."
She snorted. "And your teacher's going to have fits when he finds out what sort of riffraff you've let in."
His expression changed from faint reproof to something she couldn't name. "Master Ransome doesn't have anything to say about it anymore."
"No," said Owen. "I'm no longer bound to him."
"I asked him for an end to my apprenticeship."
Getting straight facts out of Owen, Klea reflected, was worse than pulling out mud-thorns. Persistence was the one tactic that sometimes worked. "So--did he give it to you?"
"He said I already had it. What he gave me ..." Owen paused. "He gave me Mastery over the whole Guild."
Klea jerked her head up, startled. "He did what?"
"He can't fight the Magelords any longer," Owen said. "They have him prisoner--on one of their ships, I think, orbiting Galcen. When I came to him there--"
She stared at him. "You went ... 'out of body,' did you call it ... all the way to Galcen?"
Owen nodded. "It was necessary. When I found Master Ransome, he told me that if I wanted to serve the Guild, I would have to claim the Mastery of it."
"So you did."
"Yes." The corners of his mouth quirked briefly upward. "Granted, nobody knows about the change except for Master Ransome and me--and you, of course--which is going to make asserting my authority somewhat difficult."
"Uh ... yeah." Klea shook her head, bemused. "So what are you supposed to do with this authority once you assert it?"
"Defeat the Magelords," he said. "Restore the Guild."
"All by yourself?"
"No," he said. "You're going to help."
Suivi Point proper--the original settlement, and not the myriad smaller habitats strung out along the Suivan Belt--spread across its main asteroid beneath a series of transparent domes. Over the years, full climate control and artificial gravity had come to most of the residential and business areas, though not to the low-rent districts on the fringes or to the warren of interconnected tunnels and caverns hollowed out of Suivi's inner depths.
The spacedocks were located well away from the better part of town, behind an impressive series of airtight checkpoints,partly to lessen the risk of accidents from ships coming in and leaving--"but mostly," Beka said to Jessan as they walked along one of the dockbound glidewalks, "they want to keep the scum and riffraff confined to the port quarter as much as possible. The first thing a free-spacer learns about Suivi Point is that the people who keep their money here don't want anything to do with the folks who help them make it."
The glidewalk slid into an interchange where several of the routes peeled away and others joined the main stem. Overhead, a lighted holosign flashed its crimson letters on and off: DINING AND ENTERTAINMENT/PORT ALLEY--SECOND STREET/NEXT LEFT; MAIN DOCKING/NEXT RIGHT; LAST EXITS/ FORWARD THIS WALK.
Jessan glanced up at the sign. "'Last Exits'? What have we got there--mortuary services?"
"Not exactly," Beka said.
"What do you mean, 'not exactly'?"
"Well ... some of the higher-class firms do include final disposition in their package deals."
"Package deals," said Jessan. "Packages of what?"
Beka's lips twitched in a humorless smile. "Executions. Formal, semiformal, or impromptu, all nice and legal."
"This is Suivi Point, remember--if you can't buy it here, it's not for sale anywhere."
Jessan looked curious. "I suppose you have to buy a trial and a conviction first?"
A little farther on, the glidewalk for Main Docking split off the primary track. The stores alongside changed from gaudy souvenir shops to cheap eating establishments and grim-looking transient hotels. Sealed airlocks broke the graffiti-stained walls at irregular intervals.
Beka pointed at one of the locks. It had a sign stenciled on the hatch: CAUTION! P-SUIT AREA. NO GRAVITY OR ATMOSPHERE BEYOND THIS POINT.
"You have to watch those. Sometimes the portside kids take the warning signs down for laughs."
"I'll bear that in mind," Jessan told her. "Along with all the other quaint local customs."
Beka chuckled. "Not the sort of place the group tours from Khesat make a habit of visiting, I suppose."
"I have never," said Jessan, "traveled anywhere with a group tour. And while the Space Force, in its infinite wisdom, sent me to a number of fascinating places, Suivi Point wasn't one of them."
"Lucky you. I got Suivi Point for my very first port call after I left home. It was a real eye-opener, let me tell you--if Ignac' hadn't been looking after me that time, I might never have made it back to the ship."
"Then I owe Gentlesir LeSoit a debt of gratitude," Jessan said with a marked lack of enthusiasm, as they followed a smaller glidewalk off the main branch. "Remind me to pay it back to him someday."
They stopped in front of an airlock door with a security palmplate set into the hatch. Beka put her hand on the plate; it beeped, and the synthesized voice of the door's annunciator said, "ID scan confirmed. Docking bay atmospheric integrity confirmed."
"Good," said Beka. "I'd hate to think that somebody had let all our air out while we were gone. That happened to the Claw Hard once, while I was crewing on her," she went on while the lock cycled them through. "Captain Osa didn't want to put up the nonrefundable one-week deposit on the docking fee when we were only going to be here for two days. So the Port Authority depressurized our bay until he handed over the money."
"Somehow I'm not surprised," murmured Jessan.
Inside the docking bay, Warhammer rested on landing legs beneath the transparent dome. On the far side of the enclosed space another airlock, this one with its NO GRAVITY OR ATMOSPHERE warning still fresh and clean, led out to the asteroid's surface.
The 'Hammer's ramp was down, but the force field was up. It took Beka's hand on another ID panel to turn off the field so that she and Jessan could pass through.
An unfamiliar p-suit hung in the open locker inside the 'Hammer's door. Beka and Jessan glanced at each other.
"Looks like our problem is a visitor," Jessan said.
"Not to mention somebody Ignac' doesn't think he can handle all on his lonesome," Beka said. "Which means that shooting him, her, or it won't be an option for us, either."
"It's always possible that they mean us no ill will."
"Hah. Legit business shows up at the place in town, like our old buddy damn-him-for-interrupting-breakfast Tarveet. We might as well go on into the common room and see who's there."
As she spoke, Beka checked the knife up her left sleeve. Maybe the Domina of Entibor-in-Exile couldn't get away with a tied-down blaster, but she was damned if she was going to walk around Suivi Point without a weapon or two for backup. And Jessan, for all his Khesatan elegance, had a single-shot needler concealed somewhere about his person, along with various other lethal surprises. If matters did come down to violence, they'd be ready.
She straightened the heavy tiara--without the formal structure of braids to anchor it, the famous Iron Crown of Entibor tended to slip askew--and stepped through the door into the common room. Jessan followed her, a step or two behind.
Two people waited at the common-room table. Ignaceu LeSoit, dark and wiry, with his thin mustache and his well-worn blaster, was a familiar sight. The woman was a stranger, dark-haired, her face creased with worry lines, but she wore the uniform of the Republic's Space Force and the insignia of a full captain. She rose and bowed when Beka entered.
"My lady," she said. "Please forgive this irregular method of securing an audience--but I needed to meet with you, away from the eyes and ears of the local authorities."
Oh, wonderful, thought Beka. More politics, and it isn't even lunch yet. "I haven't got the time for diplomatic games. What do you need?"
The Space Force captain glanced from Beka to Jessan and back. "I have reason to believe," she said, "that theSteering Committee of Suivi Point wishes to commandeer my forces. In fact, I suspect that the committee's messenger is looking for me right now. Regardless of the situation on Galcen, I don't want to swear allegiance to Suivi Point, or to have my ships taken from my command."
I don't blame her one little bit, Beka thought. Let those bastards on the committee get a fleet of their own, and it'll be hurray for Suivi Point and to hell with the rest of us.
She did her best to keep her features schooled to an expression of mild interest, as if they were discussing nothing more pressing than the allocation of tax levies for glidewalk repair. "So what do you want from me?"
The captain paused. This was not, it seemed, a decision she had come to easily. "Domina," she said, "we--myself and those under me--wish to swear ourselves formally to you ... ."
I don't believe this, Beka thought. Nobody's bothered with all that oath-of-fealty nonsense since before I was born.
She kept her face impassive. The Space Force captain was still talking.
" ... with the understanding that you not require us to oppose the Republic's Space Force or to act against the Republic's interests, and that you will release us from our oath once the present situation normalizes."
Beka drew a deep breath. "Is that all?"
"Yes, Domina," said the captain. "All I ask is that you put me and my detachment under your protection."
"All?" she asked. "Sounds like a great deal for you with not much in it for me."
"I'm afraid so, my lady. I can only hope that you'll be generous."
"Generous," said Beka. "Right. Hang on for a moment while I confer with my advisors."
She didn't wait for the captain's reply, but nodded to LeSoit and Jessan and swept out of the common room in her most regal manner. The Iron Crown, fortunately, didn't slip until she was out of sight around the bend in the passageway that led to the engineering spaces.
"Well," she said, as soon as they had a solid bulkheadand a closed door between them and the Space Force captain. "What do you think?"
"It is a chance to increase the size of the fleet," LeSoit pointed out.
"To more than one vessel. Yes, that's a start. Jessan, what's the Space Force got here?"
Jessan sighed. "Small stuff ... space-only, no ground presence ... I don't know anything more specific than that. I've been out of the loop for over a year now, remember?"
"Then get back into it," she told him. "I want to know what's in port, what's coming in, what's going out. This is important. Find out. I'll wait."
LeSoit was looking smug. "Captain Yevil's detachment consists of one destroyer, two fast couriers, a hyperspace-capable transport, and a half-dozen local defense single-seat fighters. Of those six, only three are fully operational."
The 'Hammer's number-two gunner leaned back against the bulkhead and favored Jessan with a bland smile. The Khesatan's lips tightened, but he didn't reply.
Beka took a deep breath and ignored the byplay. "Opinions on the cost to us of taking the captain up on her offer?"
Jessan shrugged. "We might annoy the local authorities."
"I can live with that. How about her conditions?"
"Not unreasonable, considering the situation."
She nodded. "Fine. Jessan, you're now officially the General of the Armies of Entibor. She's under your command. Don't disappoint me."
Beka looked at her little group. "Well, let's go back in there and accept the captain's oath. This is starting to shape up into an interesting day."
Copyright 1994 by Debra Doyle & James D. Macdonald