Maskirovka

By Helen Fayle

© Dec 2003-?

 

The Giants' Dance, 1752.

'Who is he?'

The emissary from Murom peered through the glass at the room beyond. At the wall opposite the viewing gallery. It afforded a perfect view of the room beyond; of the stone table in the centre, bare for now. But the focal point of the tiny chamber was the figure hanging from the wall, attached to a five-pointed device. Chains held him to the device, not wrapped around his flesh, but piercing it, the wounds unable to heal. The distinctive pearlescent shimmer of the slick extruded cerametal bonds had a sickly hue, in the bright lights that lit the chamber. Tubes coiled around in and out of the emaciated body, linking him to the machines that took up one side of the room. Naked, he hung from the device, his chin almost resting on his chest, his arms outstretched behind him, forcing the shoulders back to an impossibly strained angle, the muscles under so much tension that the onlooker thought he could almost see every striation, even at this distance. The man's skin was criss-crossed with scars and wounds, in varying stages of healing. In places, the skin had been flayed from his flesh, and some of the devices attached to his body emerged from these areas. Long dark hair hung over his face, concealing it behind the matted strands.

'Nobody, now,' the woman at the spectator's side replied coldly. 'He dared to defy me, and now he pays the price for that defiance.'

The emissary turned to face her, and bowed low, as one should in the presence of Morgaine the Deathless, Empress of the Thirteen Worlds, called Starkiller, Rose of Annwfn. 'He looks used up. Perhaps you need a new object lesson?'

She laughed, and a long-taloned hand reached out and opened the door.

'I think he'll last a little longer, Yuri. We've had him in there for seven years, and we've never yet found anything that can kill him.'

He followed her into the chamber, grateful that she walked in front of him, and could not see his face as he entered.

'My torturers have had quite a time with him,' Morgaine explained. She strode over to the suspended figure, and a gesture of her gauntleted hand brought the device down so that if he'd looked up, his eyes would have been level with hers. 'He's neither human nor dragon-born, but something else. Quite an anomaly. Everything works… and yet it doesn't. A simulacrum of life. It feels, it thinks, it can bleed, but it cannot die, for it is not truly alive.' Th gauntlet caressed his cheek, and then, and only then, did the man look up, staring at Morgaine through the matted tangle of his dark hair. His beard was long, and covered his lower face, so that only his eyes were visible over a patrician nose.

Eye. Singular. Morgaine pushed back his hair almost tenderly, and a single green eye glared back into her blue eyes; a glittering, inhuman emerald green, almost snakelike. The other eye was ruined, as was that side of his face; a sickly white orb stared out from a twisted, ravaged visage. The flesh was obviously healing, but in places was still seared to the bone, ivory white showing through the raw red muscle. Despite the air conditioning, the faint sickly stench of decay still clung to the prisoner, and the emissary swallowed hard, his rising gorge leaving an acidic aftertaste in his mouth and burning the back of his throat.

'We've tried killing him, but he just refuses to die. Nothing we do prevents it.' She stroked the damaged side of his face, leaving new weals in the wake of her long nails. 'Actually he used that to escape, at least twice, before my people realised that he could reconstitute, given a year or three. We had to recapture him twice. So now we only take him to the point of death. It's quite amazing how inventive my people have become, given such a unique opportunity to play with something they cannot break.' She turned away and faced the emissary. 'I trust you understand?'

He nodded, and she smiled coldly.

'Good,' she said briskly, dismissing the captive, or so it seemed to Murom's ambassador. A negligent wave of her hand sent the star device smoothly upwards, eliciting a slight gasp of pain from its occupant, the only sound, apart from his laboured breathing, that he'd uttered since they'd entered the room. 'Then perhaps we should now discuss your planet's somewhat ineffectual rebellion.'

He had no choice but to follow her from the room, and did not dare to look back.

 

The station was busy every hour of its artificial cycle, which made it easier for the man who walked briskly through its narrow corridors to do so un-remarked. Of average height, stocky, dark haired, he was powerfully built, but deceptively so. Very few people ever realised his strength until too late. They usually only saw what they wanted to see, which was a loud mouthed bravo a little too free with the berache. Now, he slipped easily in and out of the crowds, until he was away from the main thoroughfares of the station, and into the deeper, less well known corridors, that led to the heart of the section occupied by the Empress of the thirteen Worlds. A risky venture, but here on the Giants Dance, she was just one more paying customer, and the syndics of the 'Dance did not take kindly to private armies, which meant that the guards were few.

Besides, ostensibly there was nothing worth guarding.

The man wasn't exactly dressed for the occasion. There might have been some dress-standard for sneaking around, trying to be inconspicuous whilst having grand larceny in mind. It probably involved a lot of black. Yuri however had been in the business long enough to know that the best way to not be noticed was usually to look as though you a) knew where you were going, and b) looked as though you belonged there.

The man who'd taught him that was the reason he was here.

The room he was looking for was close to the outskirts of the section given over to Morgaine's people. The banners of the Rose Legion hung in limp folds on the walls, the silver hydra wrapped around a rose covered vine, the thorns impaling the serpentine creature at seven points. The symbolism matched the functional design of the device he'd seen earlier so well, that he knew that design had been no coincidence.

But, since he also knew the man who'd designed it, this did not surprise him.

The chamber that held Morgaine's prisoner was largely deserted, there being little need to guard a man kept at the point of death, held captive by the very device made to enhance his agony. And after all this time, there was, the guards thought, little enough left of a once monstrous will to desire escape, even if it were possible. Yuri knew this from the same source that had gotten him this close to his goal.

He sauntered towards the two guards stationed outside the chamber with an unsteady swagger: just another bravo on shore leave with too much time and too many months back pay burning a hole in his pocket, it said; had a little too much and got lost. The guards exchanged knowing glances, and one moved to help him on his way, with the camaraderie of those who know all too well what a long duty in space can be like. Yuri waited until the man had taken his arm with a firm-but-friendly grip, before slipping the forceknife he'd hidden in the spring loaded sheath on his wrist slip through his armour, and between his ribs, vibrating its way through his heart. His startled scream alerted his partner, who started towards Yuri, his sword activated. Ready for the attack, Yuri held the body of the first guard as a shield, pushing it into the path of his second assailant, who pulled his blow, fearing to cut through what might be a merely wounded friend.

Human nature, Yuri reflected as his own sword flickered into life at a touch. You just couldn't beat it as a weapon. His blade sliced surgically across the guard's neck, and the man dropped with barely a gurgle, the major artery and his trachea opened up and cauterised. Yuri let his burden drop and bent over the second guard, finishing him off with a forceknife to the heart.

Should have taken the daytime shift,' he quipped. Stepping over the bodies he activated the sigils on the locking panel, according to the instructions he'd received earlier. The door slid open almost silently, and no wards triggered as he stepped through. With a sigh of relief, he strode into the room, and a well practised gestured threw an obscuration at the sensors. Only then, once satisfied that his actions would not be noticed, did he send the signal agreed upon.

Three minutes after the killing of the first guard, the door opened again, this time to admit a giant of a man dressed in a dark grey flightsuit.

'You took your time,' Yuri told the new arrival.

'Unlike you, I'm not that easy to hide,' the giant grumbled. He towered above Yuri, easily reaching almost six and a half feet tall. Long hair, mostly grey, but with a few stray locks of a straw-coloured blond, fell down from a thick scalp lock almost to his waist, the sides shaved. A black patch covered his left eye, lost, according to legend, in a battle with the goddess Death herself. A deep scar ran across the bridge of his nose onto his other cheek. 'We've only got a narrow window of opportunity, son. Let's get him down.'

'I'm surprised you'd want to,' Yuri said tersely, as the approached the device that held Morgaine's prisoner. 'If he finds out…'

'Finds out what? That I sold him out to her? What else was I supposed to do? Get over there and be ready to unhook him. I'll override the system.' The giant ran his hands over the controls with a surprising dexterity, given the size of his massive hands. 'I had no choice – the rest of us were dead or captured, and if I hadn't come up with this little scam, she'd have found some way to destroy him – or did you think that he could survive a retro-annulment? I bought us time.'

'And yourself a sweet deal taking over this place,' Yuri accused. He watched anxiously as the device was lowered slowly to the floor, and guided it into a horizontal position as it came within reach. He examined the occupant closely, noting that even in the time since his demonstration earlier, the prisoner's body had already begun to heal – not all of the flayed muscle was visible now on the torso, and the genitals were restored. The right eye was still missing, and the ruined face still had bone showing through the torn and lacerated tissue. 'I have him, Kane,' he said, checking the body for signs of life, but foiled by the nature of the man who lay unmoving, torn and brutalised in front of him. He swore under his breath in Murom's guttural language. 'If he's still in there, how the hell do we know?' he asked, frustration making his voice crack.

Kane left the console and walked briskly over to him, and began examining the body.

'Keep an eye on the door – you'll see the wards flare red if anyone comes,' he ordered. 'Oh, he'll be in there, son, have no fear on that score.' He began to disconnect the systems that kept the prisoner in that precise balance between pain, his peculiar unlife, and the temporary respite that "death" would have granted him. 'Never known anyone who could cling so hard to a worthless existence as this one. Not even back in the Old Times.' His hands tore the next chained conduit from the unresisting body with casual cruelty, eliciting a murmur of pain from the prisoner.

'Kane – enough!' Yuri snapped from his post by the door. 'If you hate him that much, why help him at all?'

'Honour,' Kane snapped. As easily as Yuri might have lifted a child, he picked up the prisoner in his arms. 'I pay my debts, even if that means paying the devil himself, boy.'

Yuri bristled at the patronising tone, but held his peace. Kane nodded at the door.

'Take point, and remember the route I asked you to memorise. There's a small dromond waiting in the lower cargo bay, fuelled and ready to take off.' He shifted the limp figure in his arms to a more comfortable position. 'Now.'

The corridors were largely deserted in this area, and the few wandering souls were easily avoided, at least until they reached the more public levels. The route to the bay that held the dromond was totally deserted, a testament to Kane's organisation. Yuri keyed the hatch open, then stood aside to let the giant and his burden pass into the belly of the ship. Kane strode purposefully along the narrow corridor to the small stateroom, and laid his burden down on the couch in the centre of the room. 'We'll need to wait a few minutes,' he told the shorter man.

'Isn't that a risk?' Yuri asked.

'About now, all hell will be breaking loose over there,' Kane explained. 'And as soon as Morgaine's people begin their conducted tour of the station with my head of security, you can slip the ship out. The clearances are arranged.'

Kane peeled the prisoner's dark hair away from his face, where it had stuck to the bloody, flayed flesh. The large part of his body was now looking more normal, albeit emaciated and marked with scar tissue. Kane reached under the couch and pulled out a small package, which he unwrapped to reveal a roll of shimmering fabric – Yuri recognised it as shansa skin, used to treat burn victims – in which he proceeded to wrap the man. Part of it was laid carefully over his mangled face, hiding his ruined eye, which Yuri, from his vantage point near the door, suddenly found all too eerily reminiscent of Kane's disfigurement – as though some force had determined that these two men – so often at odds during the rebellion – should be taught how much alike they were behind the facades they both maintained.

The prisoner's remaining eye opened, and glared with a virulent green intensity at Kane, who smiled coldly and leaned over him, straightening his cover.

'Glad to see you're awake,' he said coldly. The man tried to speak but only a hoarse croak emerged. 'Don't try,' Kane advised him, 'You've not got much there to work with just yet. Can you move?'

There was nothing in those glittering, cat-like eyes but simmering hatred.

Yuri tried. 'Kit please, I understand, but he had no choice – the rebellion was over, and Morgaine had all of the leaders by then. Kane and I were the only ones who escaped the cull. He had to find a way of keeping you out of the hands of the druids. At least here, with the option he offered her, there was still a chance. On Gwynedd, we had none.'

Lashless lids lowered slowly to veil an emerald abyss.

Yuri wasn't sure if that indicated acceptance, or simple weariness. He pressed on regardless, knowing time was short. 'Kane's people can keep the search parties off our path, but not for long. We have to get you off the station …' A hand, twisted and broken, but still surprisingly strong, reached out with the speed of a striking snake and grasped his wrist, long nails digging into soft flesh. Yuri winced, but didn't pull his hand away.

'There's nothing there,' Kane told Yuri. 'Watch yourself. I'm not sure he'll recognise you.'

'I can handle it,' Yuri snapped. The ruined form released its grip, and he moved away from the couch, to stand next to Kane.

Kane shrugged. 'He's broken, Yuriy. Though I never thought I'd see it. If he comes back from this, he won't be the same. No-one ever is.'

The two men looked back at the bloodied mess on the couch simultaneously. Without a word, Kane turned and left the room, ducking to avoid hitting his head on the lintel. Yuri, after a brief hesitation, followed him and closed the door behind him, keying the palm wards to secure the room.

'I should wish you luck,' Kane said, poised to leave the dromond, one foot on the ramp.

'Luck doesn't enter into it,' Yuri said softly.

'You sound like him,' Kane said. He leapt from the ramp as it raised, and was lost to Yuri's sight, although his voice came over the comlink loud and clear. 'Five minutes, Yuriy. The ship knows what to do. Once you're out of the system, you're on your own.'

It was at that moment that the screaming started. In the docking bay, Kane switched off the comms with a wave of his hand, and grunted. 'Or maybe not, you poor bastard,' he muttered, as he walked away. 'He'll be the death of you, one day.'

 

 

Chapter One

Maskirovka: (Russian) - Deception, misinformation, misleading the enemy,
reinforcing false assumptions whilst working within your enemy's
expectations...

 

Gwynedd, present day.

Three men in black stood on the edge of a cleared field, staring at a brilliant blue sky. All three were slim, bearded, and about six feet in height. Any immediate sense that they looked alike would have been dispelled by a second look: the superficial similarities were just that. One of the three - the youngest in appearance – had shoulder length red hair, and his beard was neatly trimmed to cover just his chin and upper lip. His ankle length, full skirted black coat was made of a summer weight weave, and bore both the twin silver ravens on the collar of a master bard, and the left breast bore a silver tree entwined with a dragon. The other two men were dark haired, and wore their hair a little shorter – curling to the top of their collars, again trimmed with the silver ravens. The older of the two had silver streaks in his black hair, and his coat - of a similar style and cut to the red haired man's, bore a similar tree, but without a dragon, and on the right breast. One sleeve of the coat was pinned up, the arm missing just above the shoulder. His companion's coat was less full, and leather, but otherwise marked in the same way.

'He's late,' the one-armed bard said companionably to the redhead.

'It's a long way from Breceliande to Gwynedd,' the other replied with an easy-going smile. 'Give the man a break, Marius.'

'Which arm?' Marius asked with a grin. 'I've got to say though, I'm rather looking forward to this, Tal,' he continued. 'Kastchei going head to head with the Council? I should sell tickets.'

Gwynedd's premier bard grinned at his second. 'If only you were joking…' Taliesin quipped.

'Is this man as bad as you both claim?' the man in leather asked, his tone a little petulant as though piqued at being left out of the joke. 'You make him sound like a devil incarnate!'

'Not far wrong,' Taliesin told him. 'Although he's a charming bastard.'

'Not unlike you, Dev,' Marius said, placing his remaining arm around the waist of the other bard. 'Just a lot less effervescent.'

'You'll have the chance to find out,' Taliesin said, pointing skywards. 'His ship's coming in.'

The other two followed the line of his raised arm, and watched as the dromond – a large freighter – flew in low and straight over the treeline, hovering briefly over the glade before landing with delicate precision on the sward.

'Good piloting,' Devin murmured to Marius. The one-armed bard snorted.

'Showing off,' he whispered back. Taliesin just smiled, and sauntered towards the slowly lowering ramp of the ship, careful to avoid the heat from the side vents. A tall figure stood silhouetted in the light from the ship's interior, before descending the ramp with a long, arrogant stride, a dark coat swirling out behind him almost as voluminously as a cloak.

'I know I come bearing gifts, Talya – but really – the tradesman's entrance?' he drawled. Taliesin offered his hand, which was taken warmly.

'Elphin thought it best to bring you up to date before you arrived at court, hence the re-direction to the bards' landing fields,' he explained. 'You're looking good,' he added, taking a step back to get a better look.

The new arrival allowed the inspection with an amused acceptance, as though it had never been in doubt. His dark auburn hair flamed in the sunlight, flecked with a little more silver, perhaps, than when Taliesin had seen him last, but that only lightened it to a more coppery tone. His eyes - always the most expressive – yet paradoxically the most easily shuttered window to his thoughts – were today a vivid blue, which, coupled with the lop-sided smile that preyed around the corners of his mouth, gave him an air of devilish charm that still somehow managed to walk the fine line between mischief and malevolence that Taliesin found so disconcerting about the man.

'You look a lot more relaxed in your own element, Talya,' the newcomer replied, eschewing the return of pleasantries. 'Are you going to introduce me? Marius I know, of course…' he gestured for Taliesin to lead the way to where Marius and Devin stood waiting. Marius bowed as they approached, and offered his hand.

'Marius. You look better.'

'My lord. Welcome to Gwynedd.'

'This is Devin,' Taliesin said, introducing Marius' partner in crime. 'Called "Dreamweaver" by some, a pain in the backside by others.'

'Hey!' Devin offered his hand to the newcomer. 'Ignore him, he's just jealous.'

'Devin, may I introduce the Lord of Summer, Kastchei Bes-mertny.'

Kastchei bowed. 'I've heard a lot about you, from various sources.'

'None of it good, if it's from these two,' Devin said with a laugh. 'You have quite a reputation yourself, Lord Kastchei. It'll be interesting to see if you live up to most of it.'

'You'd do better,' Kastchei replied cuttingly, 'To hope that I don't.' He turned his attention back to Taliesin. 'I have some twenty cybrorses on board for Elphin, as requested. I'd appreciate it if they could be taken care of?'

'I'll organise it, 'Marius interjected, with a nod to Taliesin. 'Tal can take you back to the house.'

Hoofbeats echoed on the ramp of the ship, and the three bards turned to look.

'Is that what you're breeding on Breceliande?' Devin asked. He whistled. 'I can see why Elphin's keen to have you on our side.'

'That one is not part of the deal,' Kastchei told him. The albino stallion, easily eighteen and a half hands tall, walked down the ramp with almost as much arrogance as his master, then trotted over to stand by his side. 'Nor is the black, or the chestnut mare. The others should be sent on to the king's stables.'

'I'll see it done,' Marius said. He tugged Devin's shirt, to tear his attention away. 'Make yourself useful and fetch the master of horse,' he whispered into his partner's ear.

Devin couldn't take his eyes off the white stallion, which regarded him with disdain with red eyes. 'Would you look at that creature? I've never seen anything like it.'

'Dev…' Taliesin said warningly. The bard brought his attention back to his superior sharply.

'Sorry.' He scuttled away in the direction of the stables.

'Shouldn't he take Sivushka with him?' Taliesin asked. Kastchei shook his head.

'I didn't bring him to stand in a stall eating his head off,' he said. 'Let him wander, I'd like him to get the feel for a new world.'

Taliesin, who had his suspicions about the true nature of the cybrid, forbore to ask why, sensing that an answer wouldn't be forthcoming even if he did. He settled for leading Breceliande's lord towards the Bards' House.

The cynfeirdd – the high council of the bards – called it the House, but it was more of a small village on the outskirts of the town of Joyous Garde. A self contained collection of halls, houses, an amphitheatre, barracks and workshops. The buildings were constructed in several styles, owing their existence to several eras. As pencerdd, or Chief Bard, Taliesin had a small house near the main hall, and it was here that he guided Kastchei. Once inside, a second year apprentice took their coats, and another offered both chief and lord a chilled wine. Without waiting for an invitation, Kastchei took the biggest chair and made himself comfortable, waiting for Taliesin to take the smaller chair nearby.

'I can't say I'm displeased at the arrangement,' he said eventually. 'Although a little warning might have been helpful.'

'Sorry,' Taliesin said, and took a sip of his wine. 'But things kind of got a little out of hand whilst you were in transit. El thought it would be better if you came in quietly. What's left of the council meets tomorrow to discuss the affair, and we thought it best to brief you first.'

'I do have my sources,' Kastchei replied, sounding amused. 'But Skazki – sorry, Breceliande – is a long way out in the web, and it is a three week journey in that ship.'

'You were offered a courier,' Taliesin said with a grin. 'It's not my fault that you sent Vivienne back in it…'

At the mention of her name, Kastchei looked around, as though expecting her to walk through the door. Taliesin shook his head.

'She's in Caer Tagel, trying to collate some of the intelligence we've received over the past few months, ready for the council. I'm afraid you're stuck with me, tonight.'

There was an unspoken shift in the tension between the two men; something neither of them seemed willing to acknowledge.

It was the bard, not the sorcerer, who changed the subject.

'It's been at least a year since I left Skazki – how are things?'

'Didn't Vivienne fill you in?' Kastchei tutted.

'Vivienne,' Taliesin drawled, 'Left three months ago. You know what I want to know.'

'Phoenix.'

The flat, emotionless tone of Kastchei's voice was enough to tell a bard what he needed to know. Habit was strong and hard to break: he asked anyway.

'No change?'

'Volkhvy says such things take time. The child went through a lot, Talya – it'll take time. At least he's - she's conscious at last.'

'You took hir back to the tribe?'

A shrug. 'To the forest. Volkhvy agreed to take the Golden Book. Quite a step from shamanka to khoizaika lesa, but the old bitch seems to be coping.'

Taliesin chuckled. 'She'd not take too kindly to you calling her that, if she heard.' He remembered the old shamanka all too well, although his time with her had been brief – a fortnight or so trekking over the tundra, most of which he'd been unconscious for, then a week helping the old woman with a traumatised Phoenix, which had ended in an icy lake and a perilous escape from an overly amorous rusalka. Something Kastchei obviously remembered, judging by the half-smile preying round the other man's lips.

'She's easier to deal with than Ygraine ever was,' Kastchei said eventually. 'Although looking after a teenager who's turning into a timeship is probably stretching her a bit.'

'Did anyone ever tell you that you have a dramatic tendency to understatement?' Taliesin laughed.

Kastchei grinned wolfishly at him. 'Vivienne, almost incessantly over the past eighteen months, and she usually tells me that it reminds her of you.'

The Giants' Dance, present day.

Aidan macAilell started nervously as something ruffled the fabric of his overalls. For a moment he thought something had caught hold of him and was tugging at his sleeve, and he jumped, for one brief second in the half-light of the hanger, the shadows took on the shape of a boggart.

'Stop jumping at shadows,' his partner snapped. 'It's just the air conditioning kicking in – they only turn the air flow on every half hour – during down time, that is. Saves on power.' Sharven bent back over the lock of the container again.

'Easy for you to say,' Aidan muttered. 'I've seen some of the things that lurk down here. Spriggans in the ventilation shafts, afancs in the cisterns, and they say there's a finoderee in the sealed off section of the Echtra that's been there since they first annexed the hull.'

'Night-time stories to frighten children,' Sharven snorted. 'The only thing I've ever known to go "bump" in the night round here is the hot water pump in my quarters. Bring that light over here a minute.' Aidan obligingly swung the hand in the required direction. 'I'm more interested in what's in this crate. This had better be worth it.'

'I helped unload it from the ship myself,' Aidan said. 'Big organic she was – still is – they've got her quarantined in sector eight – you know how the Boss dislikes organics. Battle cruiser. An old one. I heard one bloke call her Prydwen.'

'That was the king's ship,' Sharven said. 'Looked it up. Station logs said she's under the command of a Kaiwyn ap Eachtar, but I figured that was just a nomme de guerre – like your spriggans, something to scare the witless. I mean – who's he kidding?'

There was a decisive click.

'Is it open yet?' Aidan whispered.

'Give it time, lad,' Sharven snapped. 'You don't open locks like this in a hurry, not if you want to keep your hands. This one belongs to D'Alembert, and he's a right sod for putting surprises in for the unwary cracksman. At least with the Boss you know you'll just get something blown off – with D'Alembert you're likely to wake up and find your cock dangling from your forehead. This had better be worth it, kiddo.'

'I heard this Kaiwyn and the woman with him tell D'Alembert that this would meet the price for one of his damned ships,' Aidan retorted. 'You know what they say he breeds over there, you work it out. I helped move six containers into that thing, and D'Alembert wants it moved tomorrow before 1st cycle to his own facility. Those boxes were big, and heavy.'

Click

'Well we'll find out, won't we?' Sharven said smugly. 'Stand back.'

The door of the storage container swung open slowly, and Aidan shivered as a blast of cold air gusted past him, like the breath from a tomb. Sharven peered into the gloomy interior. 'Bring that light, lad.' He took the hand from Aidan, pulling a face as his fingers closed on the waxy skin, which squirmed under his touch. The five flickering flames burned a little more brightly as he stepped into the darkness, but cast little light in the gloom. He almost dropped the hand as warm fat dripped onto the back of his hand from the smoky tapers. 'Next time, I pay for some decent wards and a torch,' he muttered, half to himself.

Inside, seven coffin-sized containers were stacked haphazardly on the floor, as though the dockers had just dumped them and run. Not an altogether outrageous assumption, Sharven thought, looking at the half-petrified Aidan. But a thief of his calibre was made of sterner stuff. He approached the nearest box on tiptoe, and knelt down beside it to take a closer look.

The box hummed, barely audible until he put his ear to the surface – and he jerked back suddenly, the hand almost falling from his grasp, and sputtering black smoke as fat caught in the flame. The smell of scorched rotting flesh was suddenly overpowering, and Sharven had to fight down the remains of his supper, reminding himself not to eat smoked ashren before a job again.

'Sharven?' came Aidan nervous query from the door.

'It's bloody freezing!' Sharven hissed loudly. 'Whatever's in there is as cold as the seven hells.' He found a socket on the casket, just large enough to take the base of the hand, and stuck it in there, still sputtering. His hands now free, he examined the box closely in the uncertain light. Using his sleeve he rubbed at the layer of frost on the lid, and peered into the casket.

'There's a man in it,' he said wonderingly. 'Get your backside over here, lad, give me a hand.'

Aidan sidled into the container reluctantly, but Sharven was already examining the locks on the casket. 'Come here. Look – there's something written on it. Can you make it out?'

Aidan, from a safe position behind the thief, craned his neck to look. 'It's not in any language I know,' he said eventually. 'I don't even recognise the letters, and I've seen damn near everything pass through here.'

'It's dragon-tongue,' Sharven said, running his hands over the sigils. 'I've seen it before, in the Boss's office. 'The first ones used it – it was their language back where they came from.'

'Then we shouldn't mess, eh?' Aidan said. 'That's sorcery. Sorcerers. We shouldn't mess with stuff from the Old Times.'

'Are you crazy? Whoever this guy and his friends here are, they're worth a king's ransom to D'Alembert – and that means to us.' Sharven ran his hands over the locks, feeling for the pressure points. The elaborate ornamentation felt slick under his sensitive fingers, almost oily, but he could trace the lines of the figure-of-eight device, and with a grunt of satisfaction, he sat back on his heels as the sigils faded away like mist. The lid of the casket slid back into the side to reveal the body of a man, clad in a form fitting black pressure suit of some kind. Tubes and wires were vanishing into the casket even as the thief watched. 'Amazing,' Sharven breathed. His own breath hovered in front of him, condensing in the cold air over the casket. He could see no breath from the occupant. 'The technology alone in this will bring a small fortune in the right place.'

'Sharven,' Aidan said warningly. The thief gave his accomplice a sharp look.

'What?'

He pointed. 'The hand. It's burning low, we don't have much time.'

Sharven looked at the hand of glory, listing slightly to one side in the socket that was just a little too big for it, so that it had slid down until the base of the thumb provided a ledge to stop it slipping further in the cup.

'Time enough,' he grunted. He looked back into the casket. The man's chest now rose and fell steadily, and a slight mist formed above his slightly parted lips. 'He's alive!' he called back over his shoulder. Aidan shuffled even further away from the casket.

'I've got a really bad feeling about this,' he hissed. 'Sharven – leave it. Please?'

'Too many tales scaring the britches off you by your grandmother, that's your problem,' Sharven grumbled. 'You'll be telling me next this one's one of the Anaon shadowless-warriors next.'

A cold hand clamped over his, and he screamed. The figure in the casket sat up, his eyes staring straight into Sharven's.

They were black. A deep, cold, alien black without iris or pupil, and despite the closeness of the hand's fading flames, no light was reflecting in them. They were the last thing Sharven saw.

The hand was knocked from the holder as the thief fell, and Aidan was left in darkness, the faint red light from the emergency lighting in the storage area outside only making the shadows deeper. He'd heard Sharven scream, had heard the hand fall, and now his mind worked overtime, conjuring shapes from the blackness around him, every sound startling a whimper out of his throat. He fumbled his way to the doorway, desperate to escape to the comparative safety of the bay.

The few steps seemed to take an eternity. He sobbed with relief as the wail of the alarm sounded, their presence detected now that the hand was out. But even as his fingers closed on the metal of the door, a cold hand closed around his.

A pale hand let the empty pressure suit drop to the floor in a heap, and faded into the shadows like a ghost. The door to the container slammed shut with a hollow clang, and by the time two security guards came running into the bay, and the lights came on, there was no sign of anything amiss.

'False alarm,' one of them yawned whilst his partner looked around. 'Happens a lot down here.'

'You want me to log it?' the other asked. Something brushed past him, or at least, that's what it felt like, and he shivered and tugged at his armour. 'Gods this place gives me the creeps even with the lights on. The sooner we get back onto a decent shift, the happier I'll be.'

Black eyes, invisible in the shadows, watched as the two men almost scuttled out of the bay, the lights dimming again as they left, and the wail cut off abruptly behind them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

Chapter Two

"And after all, what is a lie? 'Tis but the truth in maskerade..."
Byron: Don Juan

 

The Giants' Dance

The pit was virtually deserted - only a handful of spectators watched from the stands that lined the amphitheatre, and most of them were the cleaning staff, clearing away the detritus left behind by the previous night's audience, most of whom, judging by the quantity of litter they'd stuffed under their seats or just let fall to the floor, thought that "waste disposal" meant "someone else will clear it up". Faced with at least another hour or two of half eaten food, sticky disposable goblets, and the odd ammoniacally aromatic corner where someone had taken a sneaky leak, it was no wonder that most of its staff welcomed the opportunity to lean on brooms and hovercarts and watch the action down in the pit below.

Two men fought on the sandy floor. The pit's design amplified the accoustics, carrying the clash of swords, the grunts and gasps and every gulp for air even to the cheapest seats near the roof. In flagrant disobedience to the station's mandate that all citizens should be garbed for ease of slipping into the nearest suit in case of hull breach, they fought stripped to the waist, although both wore form-fitting breeches tucked into boots, and each also wore a shield-collar.

The two fighters were of very different types - The taller of the two men was a good head taller than his opponent, and easily twice as bulky. His body was thickly muscular, almost slab-like in places. In standard gravity he might have pulled at least 250 pounds. Old scars marred the skin in places – rippling across the muscles of his chest as he moved. His hair was shaved close to his scalp, but enough remained to see that it was mostly grey, although physically, a casual observer might have thought him to be only in his mid-forties. A heavy scar ran from the patch that covered his left eye, across the bridge of his nose and down the opposite cheek. Deep lines crinkled the corner of his remaining eye. The sword he held lightly in his right hand would have taken some men two hands to lift.

The other man, so much smaller and lighter than the other, was also considerably younger, with light brown hair. Not short – perhaps a shade under six foot, and well built, he looked like a stripling next to the giant he faced. Despite the bulk and ferocity of his opponent, he was holding his own quite handily, his speed keeping him out of reach of the bigger man's sword. When they did make contact, the smaller man's arms shook with the effort of parrying the heavier blade.

It wouldn't take an expert to realise in short order that the big man was holding back. After only a few minutes, the younger man, dripping sweat and gulping for air like a fish out of water, let his blade sag to the ground, the point dragging in the sand. He leaned on it as an old man might lean on a stick.

'Enough! I'll have a heart attack if we carry on!' he gasped out. The giant lowered his own blade, and offered his hand to the other. It was clasped as firmly as the younger man could manage, but every muscle in his arm trembled at the effort.

'You're still not making the most of your advantage,' the giant told him. 'You're smaller, lighter – use it. You spend too much energy keeping out of reach, when you should be getting in under my guard and within my swing.'

'Easy for you to say,' the younger man said hoarsely. 'You'd just drop your sword and squeeze the life out of me!'

The other looked amused. 'I never said it would be easy.'

'Hah. Very funny, Kane.' The smaller man walked stiffly over to the bench at the edge of the pit, and sat down heavily. An attendant handed him a towel which he took gratefully. 'Get someone else to be your punchbag next time. I'd like a chance to reach forty.'

'Then don't work for me, Taran,' Kane grunted, taking the seat next to him. He'd hardly worked up a sweat at all – whilst it ran in rivulets off the younger man's skin, Kane's barely glistened.

'Fine, I quit,' Taran said, dropping the wet towel onto the outstetched arm of an attendant. He picked up a cloth and wiped down the blade of his sword.

'That's the fourth time this week,' Kane said. 'One day, I'll accept.' He stood up and stretched. His cyclopean gaze raked over the small cluster of men and women waiting to use the facility. 'Anyone else fancy a bout?'

The shuffling and sudden interest in the floor, ceiling and walls was answer enough. Kane laughed. 'Didn't think so.'

He left Taran to pick up both sheaths and follow him to the showers. Under the hot water, letting it cascade over his back, he stretched and winced, feeling the sharp ache in his muscles, that hadn't been there a century or so ago. The hot water also stung when it washed over two shallow cuts on his arm, and another across his left shoulder, running down over his chest.

'A couple of years ago, no-one would have got even that close,' said a voice from behind him. A woman's voice, deep, and slightly husky with a nasal twang.

'Do you really want to tell me that I'm getting old, Locke?' he asked, turning around to face her, and continuing with his shower as though she weren't there. Taran, limping into the changing room from the other shower, yelped and reached for a towel. Locke just shook her head.

'Oh please, Taran – it's not as though I don't know what swings between your legs.'

'That's not the point. You're not supposed to be in here. Kane! A little privacy…' he pleaded.

Kane shrugged, and stepped out of the shower, the water switching off behind him. The drying field removed the remaining water from his skin, and he walked past Locke without a trace of embarrassment. 'Work it out between you. Locke – this had better be good.'

'It's not,' she said tersely, tugging on a long platinum blonde braid. 'I think we've got a problem.'

'Problems are wait I pay the two of you to handle,' he snapped.

'He pays us?' Taran asked with mock incredulity, pausing in the act of pulling on his breeches.

'Allegedly,' Locke deadpanned. 'This one I think you're going to want to take a look at yourself,' she said to Kane, who was pulling a shirt on over his head. The scars on his chest looked livid against his pale skin, in the fraction of a second before he pulled the fabric over them. 'Something came up in the regular reports I think you're going to want to see.'

Kane looked into her blue eyes, which seemed clouded. It was unusual for Locke to come running to him with anything - she knew that he preferred to keep to the shadows. 'You'd better meet me in my office,' Kane told her gruffly. 'Give me half an hour to get across the station.'

He strode out, favouring his bad leg slightly.

Gwynedd. Caer Tagel.

Staring out of the window not so much dreamily, as in dire need of giving her eyes a rest, Vivienne jumped when a solid thud sounded behind her.

'Sorry,' Solange said, in a voice that made it quite clear she was anything but. 'His Majesty thought you'd like the latest batch of reports as soon as they got here.'

'Thank you,' Vivienne replied, keeping her own voice as light and airy as she could, and smiling sweetly at the diminutive bard. She pulled a face as she looked over at the latest addition to the chaotic piles of paper and durafilm that already cluttered her desk. Not for the first time, she found herself wishing for a computer. Nothing fancy – just a plain desktop, or a basic little lap top.

Hell, she thought, staring moodily at the foot high pile Solange had just dropped on the desk. A 286 would be welcome about now…

'Yes, well,' Solange sniffed. 'Before anyone else decides to use me as a pack horse, I've got work to do.'

She flounced towards the door, her back so stiff Vivienne hoped for a moment it would snap.

'That would be arranging tonight's musicians?' Vivienne asked innocently, unable to resist.

The door slammed shut behind the blonde bard with so much force that the doorframe rattled. Vivienne hadn't even sat down before it opened again.

'That little stormcloud stomping down the corridor wouldn't be down to you, I suppose?' A young girl – no more than eighteen at most; tall, slim, with long black hair and grey eyes peeped around the door. 'Is it safe?' She bounded in regardless and perched on the edge of Vivienne's desk. 'Good grief, you'll be here all night!'

Vivienne grinned at her. 'Well you could give me a hand…' She shooed the younger woman off the desk, and the girl landed lightly on the floor like a cat. 'Mela – you're supposed to be getting dressed, aren't you? Not slumming with the hired help?'

Melanghel, crown princess of the Thirteen Worlds, grinned. 'I am dressed. If they want me in anything else, they can bloody well wait.'

Vivienne looked down at the girl's cream shirt, splotched with grass stains, and the seat and insides of her breeches were covered with horsehair. 'Turn up to your own coming of age ball like that, you'll cause an outcry!'

'Oh, I don't know,' Melanghel said, giving a mock-twirl. 'It might set a new fashion!' She sobered up abruptly, and picked up a handful of papers. 'More reports?'

Vivienne sighed. 'Too many, and too late, as usual. Since Kai's defection, there are more rumblings in the alliance than ever. Trying to find any pattern in all of this is damn near impossible.' She sat back heavily in her chair and ran her fingers through her shoulder length chestnut hair. 'What worries me most is that there's no sign of the Prydwen since she left Breceliande – it's as though she's vanished into the void. No ship can go that long in deep space, Mela. She's got to turn up somewhere.'

'Is it Prydwen you're worried about,' Melanghel asked solemnly, 'or Mordred?'

Vivienne stood up so suddenly that her chair fell over behind her. She walked over to the open window, and stared out of it, over the forest, her arms wrapped tightly around herself. She heard the scraping sound as Mela picked up her chair, but didn't turn around. Light footsteps tapped across the stone floor, muffled halfway for three steps as the princess crossed the woven rug in the middle of the room.

'I'm sorry, Vivienne,' she said softly, her voice trembling slightly. 'I didn't mean to rake up bad memories.'

Vivienne shook her head, and took a deep breath. The air, fresh, with a slight chill despite the summer night drawing in, was filled with the heady scents from the gardens below. She looked down, and watched the figures of the Caer's staff scurry from bed to bed, gathering blooms for the ball, handcarts shadowing them up and down the garden.

'Not your fault,' she told the girl, still not looking at her. 'Most of the time I can just not think about it, and it feels as if it happened to someone else. Then something will bring it all crashing back – a sight, a sound, a word, a scent…' Abruptly she turned, and forced a smile. 'Come on,' she said to Mela. She placed her arm around the younger girl's waist and gave her a quick hug. 'You're not the only one who has to get dressed for tonight.'

'Will he be there do you think?' Melanghel asked, smiling at her, her eyes sparkling.

Vivienne answered without thinking: 'Who – Kastchei?'

Mela gave her a searching look. 'Actually, I meant Tal.'

The Giant's Dance

Kane's office was small – he didn't use it as much more than a place for his own work, dealing with the parts of his life that couldn't be delegated elsewhere. On the rare occasions when he needed to deal with petitions and problems in more impressive surroundings, he used Locke's office.

His own desk was small, but sturdy: ancient oak, imported at great cost from some planet or other by a man whose name he didn't even remember, whose property he'd confiscated after he'd killed him. Durafilm sheets were stacked neatly on one corner, and the crystal orb that connected him to the communications web of the 'Dance sat on an ornate silver stand in the shape of a skeletal hand on the other. Without looking behind him, he could feel the eyes of the only ornamentation in the room staring at him: from her perch, balanced on one leg standing on a fallen figure, the other bent-kneed and raised, her eight arms each holding a weapon, the goddess of his destruction leered down at him from the mantle. A reminder: he'd had the original sculpted over two hundred years ago. This was the fourth. He'd destroyed the other three, but always had it re-cast, eventually.

Locke didn't bother knocking, she strode in briskly, several sheets in her hand, and sat down opposite her boss without waiting for permission. 'Like I said,' she began, handing him the top sheets, 'You're going to want to see this.'

He glanced down at the reports, noting the docking logs dated two days ago. He looked up at her quizzically.

Locke sighed, and pointed. 'Here. This vessel. A drakkhar is unusual enough this far out into the unallied territories, but the name she gave rang warning bells, and I did some checking.'

'Prydwen,' Kane said, half under his breath. 'The Alliance's flagship?'

'She was.' Locke handed him another sheet. 'We've been hearing rumours flying in from all over the allied systems over the last eighteen months. This new dynasty seems to be having a few problems of late. They've kept it in house, but traders talk, and we get everything and everyone through here sooner or later. My sources tell me that at least four worlds have seceded from the Alliance, and that - and this is the part I can't confirm – Mordred is back.'

'We've been hearing reports and rumours of the return of kings and sorcerers for centuries – if not Arthur, then Merlin – and then it was Morgaine and her brat.' Kane put the films down on the desk. 'Fairy-tales ain't good for business, kiddo. Who's on that ship?'

Locke stood up and paced the width of the small room a couple of times, looking back over her shoulder to where Kane was keeping his single eye fixed on her. 'Kai, formerly King Elphin's Lord Commander, and a woman who calls herself Marya Marevna.'

'Great. Politicals,' Kane snapped. He glared at Locke. 'Can't kick 'em out, I suppose – technically we're neutral and I've got no axe to grind with either side, but the last thing I need is half of Elphin's battle fleet coming down our throats. Who knows they're here?'

'You. Me. Taran when I tell him. Plus the docking guild.'

'They're ours, I'm not worried about that side of things. Who are they here for? The Lord Commander wouldn't head out all this way just for a lap-dance, and if it's mercs he's after, he'd get a better deal on Iskander. He's not under a false flag either, so whatever it is, he needs the clout of his own name to get it…' Kane grimaced, and rubbed the patch over his eye socket hard. 'Damn. Just when I'd got comfortable, I get shit like this dropped in my lap.'

'That's the bit I was holding off on,' Locke said grimly. 'He's here to trade with D'Alembert.'

Kane swore violently, and slammed a fist down on the desk, hard enough to make even Locke jump. 'You really know how to make my day, don't you,' he snarled. 'Damn.'

'Didn't think you'd take it too well,' Locke said, a trifle smugly.

'Puts a whole different spin on it, kiddo,' Kane told her. 'Trade's one thing: mercs – no problem, a bit of R&R likewise – but if he's trading with Simon, he's only after one thing, and that's going to bring the whole bloody fleet down on us the moment the Alliance finds out.'

'Look on the bright side,' Locke said, 'Maybe they won't find out?'

'With those squawking crows poking their noses into everyone's business, you can betcha ass they'll know about it the moment Simon makes delivery. Fuck.'

'I did tell you to shut him down years ago,' Locke said evenly, picking up her papers. 'As I recall, you said you could handle it.'

'That was then,' Kane said icily. 'When arms shipping to a few mercs and non-allied worlds was about the limit of his operations. And since when do I give you permission to talk to me like that?'

'Since you leave most of the running of this station to me,' she told him bluntly. 'You want to delegate, fine, just don't jump down my throat when the shit hits the fan because you made the wrong decision.' She caught sight of the amused smile on Kane's face and narrowed her eyes. 'Oh. I see, we're playing "wind up the subordinate".' She dropped the papers on his desk. 'I have work to do, I'll let you read the rest on your own.'

She stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind her. Kane shuffled the reports back into a neat pile, leaned back in his chair, and put his feet up on the desk.

'Finally,' he muttered under his breath. 'I thought she'd never leave.'

He began to read.

A minute later he let loose a stream of obscenities - most of them in languages long dead or never heard of in the Thirteen Worlds. He was out of his chair, his office, and yelling for Locke at the top of his voice before the page he dropped had time to hit the floor. The two names Locke had marked for his attention in the third document dominated the page.

The name of a planet, and the name of a man.

Breceliande was the name of the first. The name of the second was…

Gwynedd

…'Kastchei Bes-mertny, Lord of Breceliande, Master of the Wild Hunt, Lord of Summer. Lady Vivienne of Avallion…'

The herald's drone faded as they descended the staircase into the great hall of Caer Tagel, and into the milling throng of people below. Vivienne swept her skirts out of the way of the huge vases of flowers that lined the staircase, but still managed to dislodge several fragile blooms. The scent of the tellis blooms was overpowering even in the large hall, and she sneezed.

'Bless you,' Kastchei said, sounding amused. He gave little away, but she could see his gaze flickering over the hall – taking in the battle standards hanging from the walls, the assorted house pennants of the various council members present hanging limply from the ceiling, and at the crowd they were rapidly approaching. Elphin and his wife Dianora were under siege from Seithyr Seithenyn, the oversized warden waxing lyrical on some subject that had most people in the vicinity of his booming voice wincing, as usual. Elphin, Vivienne noticed, looked a little frazzled.

'Quite a crowd for a kingdom on the edge of a civil war,' Kastchei murmured in a stage whisper into her right ear. 'I like to see people keep their priorities straight.

Vivienne resisted the urge to thump him, knowing he was being deliberately provocative. One or two of the nearest guests had already given him an annoyed look. 'Life goes on,' she told him, 'and technically, this is also a way of Elphin gathering the council without it looking too much like a council of war.' She caught sight of Taliesin on the far side of the hall, and waved. He waved back, and started to weave through the crowd to her side. Melanghel, resplendent in black and red, caught him mid-way across the dance floor, and with an apologetic shrug to Vivienne, he was whisked into a reel.

'It looks as though you'll be my only guide tonight,' Kastchei said, watching the dancers. 'Why don't we raid the hors d'oeuvres and you can give me the Tatler commentary?' He steered her in the direction of the buffet, attracting a few comments along the way, both from those who knew who this had to be, and those who wondered who the flamboyant stranger was.

'I can't believe Tal didn't fill you in on the local celebrities,' Vivienne said, helping herself to a drumstick.

'He did, but I want your opinion,' Kastchei replied. He plucked the drumstick from her fingers and bit into it, smiling down at her and the face she pulled. 'Taliesin is a bard, he sees things in terms of portents, myths, and history. I want your views.'

'Flattery will get you nowhere,' she told him, taking another drumstick, this time putting it in the hand further away from him. 'But I'll do what I can.' She pointed with the sauce-covered chicken leg. 'Seithyr Seithenyn, Warden of the outer system.' Kastchei looked at the huge balding bulk dressed in a virulent orange coat over a teal shirt, who wallowed across the hall, heading unerringly for the servants serving the wine. 'Loud, obnoxious, opinionated but generally harmless. Too fond of the good things in life, but he keeps control of the outer defences well enough, for all that.'

'And the scarecrow in black with him?'

Vivienne peered through the shifting gaps in the crowd. 'Elwyn, his bard. Long of face, short on humour.' She appropriated two goblets from a passing servant in Elphin's livery, and handed one to Kastchei. 'The twins in black-' she pointed to two dark-skinned, black haired young men standing together, Devin just leaving their company – 'are Maximillian and Constantine, Princes of New Carthage and Valencia respectively, although there's not much left of Valencia. Maxim is an absolute bastard, Con a darling, but personally, I'd trust Maxim more than I'd trust his brother. Over by the door, Queen Aislinn of Lyonce, and her latest paramour.' The elderly woman was hanging onto the arm of a man who must have been at least thirty years her junior. 'Don't be fooled – he's probably her bodyguard as well. She doesn't have much time for anyone who doesn't pull their weight, and she's as sharp as a sword.'

'You like her.'

Vivienne shrugged. 'She's one of the few I trust, outside of our core group on the council. She's an vicious old bat at times, but she's always been one to call it how she's sees it.'

As though sensing the scrutiny, the old woman raised her goblet, and nodded to Vivienne. A minute or two later her young man walked over, and bowed.

'The queen requests the pleasure of your company, my Lady,' he said, 'and of your guest, of course.'

'Of course,' Kastchei murmured as they followed the young man over to where the queen, dressed in a subdued and simple gown of cream and silver. 'She'd never admit to being curious about me.'

'On the contrary, young man, I'm extraordinarily curious about you,' Queen Aislinn told him, as he bowed over her hand. She met his unrepentant smile with one of her own. 'I've heard a lot about you over the past few months, but nothing actually useful.' She shook Vivienne's hand warmly. 'My dear, he's almost as handsome as your young bard. I might start getting jealous, if you carry on collecting them like this.'

'I don't coll…' Vivienne began. She saw the twinkle in the old queen's eyes and bit her lip to hide a smile. 'You're a tease,' she accused the old woman, who laughed.

'At my age, I think you can indulge me a little, my dear.' She turned her attention back to Kastchei. 'I'm impressed. But looks aren't everything.' She was about the same height as the sorcerer, and looked into his eyes. He met her gaze without blinking, and predictably, it was the old woman who looked away. 'Yes. Not so young as you look, even for dragon-born, are you?'

Kastchei let his lop-sided half-smile play around his lips.

'As you say. I'm a great deal older than I look.'

'Not too old to take an old woman on a turn around the floor?' Aislinn offered Kastchei her arm, and with an apologetic look at Vivienne, he accepted, and allowed her to lead him into the throng.

'Now that you have me away from Vivienne, what was it you wanted to talk to me about, Lina?' he asked, after the second turn, keeping a tight hold on her hand and waist. She smiled at him, still a handsome woman, despite her years.

'I wasn't sure you'd remember, after all this time, Accolon. Tell me, do they know who you are?'

'I'd be more interested in knowing if anyone else around here is likely to recognise me,' he replied, ducking the question, and weaving her gracefully in and out of the other dancers. 'You've worn well, by the way,' he added.

'You always were a good liar. Kastchei – is that your real name this time?'

'Close enough.'

'Hmmm. In answer to your question, probably not - most of the old timers from Morgaine's days declared as soon as it became common knowledge that Mordred was back. Not that there were many left – most lost their heads during our beloved High King's rebellion, or under his father's purges before that, during the interregnum.'

The music stopped, and they parted, Kastchei bowing, Aislinn acknowledging with a nod of her head. She led him over to an alcove, screened by a thick tapestry, and seated herself as though upon a throne, spreading her skirts across the bench leaving Kastchei with no option but to be rude, or to stand.

He gave her an apologetic smile, pushed her skirts out of the way to make room, and sat down beside her.

She laughed. 'You haven't changed.' She cocked her head on one side and stared into his eyes. 'Well, the eyes are an improvement. Less like looking into the fires on Annwfn. It makes you seem more approachable.'

'Appearances can be deceiving,' he told her. 'You didn't have to separate me from Vivienne, my dear, she knows more about me than even you do.'

Aislinn's laughter, a little thin with age, still held an echo of the hearty tones of the young queen who'd dazzled Morgaine's court over two hundred and fifty years ago.

'I do when I don't want too much of my own business to get back to the cynfeirdd,' she replied. 'And Vivienne, though a delightful and intelligent young woman, is altogether too deeply inside Elphin's inner circle for my liking.'

'So much for supporting one's liege lord,' Kastchei said, keeping his gaze locked on hers.

'I may trust my king,' Aislinn snapped, 'I don't have to trust his bard. You do know what this "Taliesin" is?'

'More than you'll ever know,' Kastchei muttered under his breath.

'Pardon?'

'Merlin's revenant, or so he claims.' Kastchei shrugged. 'Personally I never trusted this idea of cauldron-copying bodies. Far too risky. No real guarantee that you'll emerge the same as you went in, so to speak. Memory is such a delicate thing, easily twisted or over written.'

'The cauldron-born are little trusted, it is true,' the queen admitted, her little moue of distaste telling Kastchei all he needed to know of one source for her distrust. 'But relics of old times are even less so. When I was only twenty, and new to court and my crown, I allowed myself to believe in someone who claimed we could overthrow a tyrant, and my world – and fifteen others – burned as a result. I would not see the same thing happen again.'

'I'm not here to fight a war for them,' he told her.

'Then why are you back, at this time? Forgive me, but trouble followed you like a black cloud, and I can't help but wonder at you being here just as the abyss yawns under our feet again.' She reached out a lined hand and placed it on his. 'I've seen the effect you can have on people and events, and I've seen the way this bard does something similar. The combination worries me.'

'Too much from the past intruding into the present,' Kastchei said softly. 'The past is where your enemy lies, not the present, or the future.'

'The past,' Aislinn replied, 'is closed to us.' She stood up, and turned her hand so that it rested over his. Kastchei rose to his feet and bowed over it. 'Be careful. I know you do not want advice from others, but it is given, anyway. I think it would be better for all of us if you were to walk away now, go back to Breceliande, and not allow yourself to be caught up in this at the heart of events.'

'It's a little late for that,' he told her, as he led her back to where Vivienne stood, now with Taliesin at her side. 'I might have done just that, if Kai and Mordred hadn't made it personal.'

Aislinn tucked her arm under his. 'Really? Just the two of them? You surprise me, Kastchei – I'd rather thought there'd be a woman involved somewhere.'

 

 

 

Chapter Three

Life is not a movie. Good guys lose, everybody lies and love… does not conquer all.

"Swimming with Sharks"

 

The Giant's Dance

Simon D'Alembert cut an impressive figure: a tall, handsome man in his apparent thirties, blond haired, blue eyed, and with the sort of face usually associated less with the life of a pirate, and more of the sort of young man mothers dream their daughters will introduce before dinner one night. His features had a certain softness, accentuated by his curling hair and the cultivation of a permanent air of vacuous innocence, that fooled many into taking him too lightly.

Kai ap Eachtar had never been one of those fools. Simon didn't even try. The woman next to Kai however, was an unknown quantity.

She was average height, slim, but well formed, he judged. The form fitting flightsuit she wore only accentuated a narrow waist and small, but full, breasts. Her hair was long, dark brown, and curled vibrantly in the humid atmosphere of the station. Her eyes were large, in a narrow, sculptured face. The cheekbones were prominent, under pale skin that invited comparisons with the finest porcelain; her mouth was small and had a tendency to pout prettily, and overall the impression was of a pretty, decorative doll.

Knowing how much his own appearance worked in his favour, Simon decided not to trust her an inch.

'The loss of one of the caskets is not my problem,' Kai was saying. D'Alembert steepled his hands in front of him, his elbows leaning on the desk.

'Under the circumstances, I can hardly disagree. But it does put us all in an awkward position.'

'Hardly,' the woman said acidly. 'You had already accepted delivery – the theft took place after we filled our side of the bargain. Your failure to keep hold of your property is not our problem, sir.'

D'Alembert leaned over the desk towards her. 'Lady – Marya – is it? I don't think you quite understand the issue. My men found two suits of clothing inside the container, both empty, but traces of human tissue were found inside them, and spread over a considerable area of the container. Now, two thieves missing is one thing, but one of the workers was reported missing early this morning. That means that we run the risk of the station enforcers being informed, and that puts us all at risk – Kane owes no allegiance to your enemies, but he cannot afford to antagonise the High King.'

'I've always had the impression that embarrassing Kane was something you had in your sights, Simon,' Kai purred. 'With what I'm giving you for this, one half-blind, thick-witted thug should be no match for you.'

Simon leaned back in his chair. 'He likes people to think he's just another dull-witted bully, but don't underestimate Kane, Kaiwyn. He wouldn't have lasted this long in charge of the 'Dance if he was. If you want my help – and looking at what you've got on your side, I'd say you need me far more than I need you – we need Kane out of the picture. The wily old bastard can call in far too many markers for my liking, and he's got a vested interest in seeing the Alliance stay calm. It's good for business, from his side of the fence.'

'But you don't agree?' the woman asked.

Simon smiled warmly at her, and was annoyed when she didn't respond. 'I sell armaments and ships, Lady Marya. The faster both sides get through them, the better my business. My lord Kai here can't get drakkhar from his usual sources – the orbital vats are in a system controlled by Queen Aislinn, and I suggest you ask him why the halls of Annwfn would freeze before she'd ever consent to supply him.'

Kai shrugged when Marya turned to look at him. 'I killed her husband. Well, one of them. No, actually, two of them – I forgot about Hoel. Admittedly the first had sided with Morgaine at times when I was supposedly working for the resistance, and she probably never connected me with the second, but still… '

'Is there anyone else you've annoyed over the years I should know about?' she asked icily. Without waiting for an answer she turned back to D'Alembert. 'Can your people cover up the missing persons' report?'

Simon shook his head. 'Not really – Kane's deputy, Locke, would sniff it out within a day if we tried. Our best idea is to distract her – give her something to take her mind off it, and keep her well away from our own enterprise.'

'That might not be too difficult,' Marya told him, a feral smiled on her lips that made his blood run cold, briefly. 'Our cargo is known to me in intimate detail – your requirements were, after all, quite specific. I know who is missing, and what he's capable of.'

Simon leaned towards her again. 'I have my people looking for it, already.'

'Call them off,' Marya ordered. 'Stay well clear of it. Let events run their course, and let Kane's people handle it. That should keep them out of your hair until we are done – and by that time, it will be too late.'

'It means I dare not begin work on the rest of your cargo,' Simon mused. 'A gamble.'

'Ah,' Marya said softly, a dangerous gleam in her eyes. 'But think of the prize.'

Simon sat back and stared at the pair. The Lord Commander, looking a little less composed than usual – a peculiar tightness around his eyes and a tendency to look disassociated from the conversation that had all the warning signs of a man too recently – and too quickly – cauldron-born. This tied in with the reports his people had intercepted from Kane's sources which suggested that the Lord Commander had been killed in a skirmish on an outlying world. The woman… now she was something else. There was a coldness about her that was totally at odds with her delicate beauty. And a brittleness he didn't like.

But as they said, the stakes were high. And if he played this right… Well, if he was honest with himself, refusing this had never been an option, and there were ways he could turn all of this to his advantage. He nodded. 'Stay out of sight, if you can, or at least off the scopes. I'll deal with Kane's people. But Lady – I would like to know which bit of my property is missing, if you don't mind? I like to know what I'm sacrificing.'

She smiled. 'But of course. Over dinner, perhaps?'

Simon rose to his feet, and gestured. The door to his office slid open silently. 'Tomorrow, at the start of the second cycle, here, if you don't mind. I prefer to make my own dinner arrangements.'

 

'Leo – I know this gives you a problem, but that doesn't mean you have to give me one.' Locke stared into the crystal globe on her desk, at the shimmering face of the chief of the port authority. 'You get hundreds of transients through here every day looking for work – take a few more on. Just because a few guys fail to turn up for work one day…'

'Eight,' he corrected her. 'Locke – they were all on third shift the night before last. All of them. And it's not that they haven't turned up for work, it's that they haven't turned up, period. No-one's seen them since they came on shift – hell, they didn't sign off. It's like they never existed. I've got wives, girlfriends, boyfriends and drinking buddies queuing up on my messages as we speak. Wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the rumours flying around down here.'

'All from the same shift?' Locke's ears would have pricked up if they could. She leaned forward. 'Leo – send me the files for the missing workers, and let me have the docking and loading logs for the day of the disappearences, and the two days before.'

'So you think this is worth looking into then?'

'I didn't say that, Leo, don't put words into my mouth. Just courier the data over, I'll get someone to take a look. Out.' Her hand pass over the orb disconnected the orb, and she sat back with a sigh.

'Get someone to take a look at what?' Taran asked, poking his head around the door.

Locke grinned. 'Tag, you're it, good of you to volunteer,' she told him. She outlined the problem.

'Missing dockers? Probably on an all night bender and are still sleeping it off, 'he said dismissively. 'How come I get landed with this?'

'For listening at doors when you shouldn't, and because you're the last man in, and I'm the boss's right hand.' Her fingers tapped lightly on the table. 'Besides, it's not just the dockers. I've had a few strange reports come in centred on that area – couple of sudden deaths, people complaining of strange sounds and maintenance have been working overtime the past couple of days. Might be nothing, but you don't take chances in a place like this.' She stood up and stretched. 'Use my office, kid, I'm off for the night.'

'Hot date?' he asked with a grin, flinging himself into her chair and squirming down into the upholstery. Her sharp glare almost pulled him upright on unseen strings.

'Not exactly,' she told him as she headed out of the door. 'I'm having dinner with the boss.'

Gwynedd

'I didn't know they were acquainted,' Taliesin said to Vivienne, watching Kastchei escort – or being escorted by – Queen Aislinn. 'I'd forgotten he had a history before getting stuck on that iceberg for two centuries. I must be getting old.'

Since as usual he didn't look a day over twenty-five, Vivienne decided to ignore the last remark. 'You're forgiven: the archives are notoriously vague on the rebellion he led as "Accolon". Perhaps you should try asking Aislinn about it?'

'If that means spending more than ten minutes alone with her,' Taliesin whispered, with a significant glance at the young man who'd accompanied the queen tonight, 'I think I'll stay ignorant.'

He fell silent as the pair reached them, and bowed low to the old queen. 'Your majesty.'

'Taliesin.' She allowed him to kiss her hand. 'Will we have the pleasure of your skill tonight? Or will you force us to contend with that horrendous row from those "musicians" all night?'

He smiled. 'The High King has asked that Marius and myself offer up some small entertainment later. I trust that meets with your approval?'

'My dear boy. If only you were not the High King's bard, you would soon discover my what it takes to win my approval.'

'Go on, blush,' Kastchei muttered, sotto voce, just loud enough for Vivienne, whose ear his lips almost brushed as he spoke, to hear. She sniggered and had to feign a sharp cough to cover it up. She elbowed the sorcerer in the ribs and was gratified by his slight grunt.

She missed Taliesin's reply, but it obviously flattered the queen, who smiled girlishly at the bard, and took her leave.

'Does that mean you get out of dancing with me again?' Vivienne twitted her partner. 'Honestly, that's what you get for dating a musician…'

'It's one set,' he told her, looking guilty. She took pity on him and kissed his cheek.

'Go on. Marius is prairie-dogging you from the other side of the hall.'

The reference earned her a puzzled look, but he was used to her anachronistic terminology by now, and sure enough, Marius was trying to peer over the heads of the crowd, jumping up and down for a better view, which meant that he was late… With an apologetic grin he vanished into the throng.

Once the usual round of introduction, small talk and hypocritical well-wishing began, Vivienne usually found that these evenings became a blur of faces and inconsequential chatter.

'Just like every embassy dinner or business reception the universe over,' Kastchei remarked dryly at one point. 'One size fits all.' He placed his goblet down on a two thousand year old chest of drawers, and watched with bored eyes as one of the servants bustled to remove it before it marked the ancient wood, the woman trying hard to refrain from a censorious glare at the perpetrator. 'Just two things missing that might have made it tolerable.'

Vivienne raised one eyebrow.

'Good Cuban cigars and a fine cognac,' he told her, sounding a little wistful. She laughed. 'I wasn't joking,' he told her.

'I know. It's just – it's so rare I get to think about –'

'The old world?' he asked. She nodded.

'So what do you miss?'

She bit her bottom lip in thought. 'Nothing you'd understand,' she said eventually, her eyes sparkling with sudden mischief.

'Why – because of who I am?' he asked. She stuck her tongue out.

'Actually, because you're a bloke,' she said. She stood on tiptoe and whispered in his ear. He choked slightly.

'You're right, that one I wouldn't get,' he said, genuinely amused.

The crowd fell silent, and all eyes, including theirs, turned towards the dais at the far end of the hall. The minstrels had retired to one side, and now stood arrayed respectfully flanking the two men who now occupied the stage. Taliesin sitting, with Leannan on his lap, the harp resting against his shoulder whilst he tuned her. Beside him, Marius stood, an ivory coloured flute braced against the stump of his arm, the other hand placed to operate a series of elongated stops and levers of gleaming silver that took the place of missing fingers. Wise in the ways of court, the audience seemed to hold its breath, awaiting the music gifted to them by the pencerdd of Gwynedd, and his second.

Taliesin's fingers gently brushed the strings of his harp as though caressing the skin of a lover, and the sweet notes of the instrument filled the hall. A couple of bars later, the haunting, soft tones of Marius' flute joined with the melody of the strings, the slightly blurred whisperings of the flute harmonising with the sharper, sweeter notes of the harp to produce a curious harmonic, but one that was almost painfully sorrowful. It spoke of loss, and sadness; of pain, but was for all that strangely hopeful.

And then Taliesin began to sing, his voice soaring between the instruments, weaving its own magic and carrying the emotions still further into the hearts of his listeners. He gave them a soulful rendition of "The Long Dark Shore" and then segued into a piece of his own composing:

The grey mists of winter fall like so many drops of rain,

Feel the ice melt to warm tears in my eyes

Under the light of a feeble sun

Don't ask me how I know

The effect of light on unseeing eyes,

How could I know?

How could I know?

Dark now my sky,

The sea of peace has left my shore,

No birds sing.

The silent spring will overflow.

You will always be a part of me.

Dark now my eyes,

The sea of peace has met the sky.

No birds sing

And like the spring,

Life whispers by.

You will always be a part of me.

Dark now my sky,

The winds of time have swept my shore.

No birds fly.

The trees that fall

Will rise no more.

You will always be a part of me.

The last few notes soared into the great hall's vaulted ceiling, and died away. Only then did the crowd move, shuffling gently as though awakening from a spell. Even Vivienne, used to the bardic gifts, found herself caught up in its magic. The feeling of a soft breeze ruffling the downy hairs on her cheek brought her back to reality, and she had to blink quickly, her eyes dry as if they had been open for the duration of the song.

Any further musings were cut short, as she felt Kastchei suddenly double up as though in pain, his cry lost amongst the many that filled the hall. Vivienne felt the breeze grow stronger, and thinking someone had opened the outer doors, she looked around, feeling Kastchei's hand clutch her sleeve and pull her down to the floor as he collapsed. Others were falling. She kept her balance, but only just, and the floor ahead was cleared enough for her to see Elphin put a hand to his head. Queen Aislinn had fainted, and was in the arms of her companion.

Nearer to her, she could see Elwyn, normally so stoical, crying out in pain, blood flowing from his nose. Solange had collapsed, and Devin was cradling Marius' head in his lap, as the older bard trembled in convulsions.

All this in the space of a heartbeat. Two. Three. Four.

A loud thunderclap echoed around the great hall, the sound of the universe ripping apart.

And she was running for the dais, calling Taliesin's name, fighting through the suddenly panicking crowd to get to him. There was screaming, and blood. So much blood.

Leannan lay on the floor, discarded, every single string snapped.

Blood everywhere, and Taliesin, white with shock and pain, white, and red.

So much blood. His arms were dripping with it, even as she lowered him to the ground.

Followed as Kastchei, who'd followed her, lowered him to the ground, shouting for a healer, his hands covered in blood.

Taliesin's blood, from more than a dozen wounds.

Kastchei, Master of the Hunt, who usually never let himself get so much as a drop on him.

So much blood. The coppery scent was sickly, cloying, and the sight of so much made her feel physically ill, seeing it pool on the pale floor, dripping from his arms, hands, face.

Her hand brushed against a harpstring, that lashed across the back of her hand, scoring it almost to the bone.

Taliesin mouthed something, and she tried to hear, over the pandemonium.

'Hold on…'

It was Kastchei who was speaking, grabbing her hand, forcing it down hard above Tal's elbow. The fabric of his coat was warm, sticky, and felt spongy. 'Press down. Gods dammit, where are those healers?' His bellow carried across the length of the hall.

'I can't…' she tried to tell Tal. 'What?'

He tried again, she laid her cheek against his; his skin was cold, so cold, and clammy.

'Tal?'

The healers pulled her away, and she was held firm against dark green velvet, strong arms holding her close, even though they trembled themselves. She could only watch, numb, as he was surrounded by white, hidden from sight by walking shrouds.

 

The Giants' Dance.

Marya stopped brushing her hair, the brush entangled in her long curls. A sharp stabbing pain lanced through her skull, and she clutched her left temple. The vein throbbed painfully for a moment, then subsided. The pain vanished as quickly as it had arrived. About to shrug it off and carry on, the feeling of something trickling down her nose made her pause again. Disbelieving, even though she could see it in the mirror, she watched as the blood dripped onto the dressing table in front of her.

The returning pain in her head gave her only a fraction of a second's warning before the pain hit again, this time slamming into her like a physical blow. She fell from her chair to the floor, screaming in agony. The wave passed over her, and she lay sobbing on the floor, unable to move, gasping for hard-won breath with a throat that felt as thought it had been scrubbed raw from screaming.

Locke sat up, scattering her long fair hair behind her shoulder, and pushed the rest out of her eyes and back off her face. Unbound, it tumbled to her knees when she was standing. Now, kneeling, it flowed out behind her and covered her lover's thighs.

She straddled the muscular body between her thighs, and rocked slowly, revelling in the feeling of him inside her. His hands stroked her breasts gently, then slid easily across sweat-lubricated skin to her back, and pulled her back down towards him, to kiss her, the changing angle of their bodies sending a thrill through hers in response. Pulling away, she lifted herself away from him, then lowered herself back down, impaling herself on him, as deep as she could take him. Although she couldn't see his face in the darkness, his intake of breath was guide enough to his response. Locke shifted her weight, grinning to herself as she felt him respond.

Knowing she now had him exactly where she wanted him, she began to move more surely, her own breaths now coming in shorter, sharper intervals. Her hands clasped his, his fingers strong enough to break hers with one squeeze, if he so chose.

She rose up again, this time unable to hold back a moan as she lowered herself back down onto him, only for him to explode from underneath her in a powerful spasm, sending her flying back and off the bed to land in a heap on the floor. She could hear him writhing on the bed, feel the sheets contort, those she'd landed on pulled from under her by the force of his seizure.

'Cock-rotted gods of hell…' she heard him shout. Pulling her scattered wits back together, Locke called for the lights.

'Son of a fucking bitch.' Kane was kneeling on the bed, the sheet wrapped around his legs and hands, breathing hard. Locke knew better than to approach him straight away: she waited until his breathing slowed, and he looked up from the bed, into her eyes.

'That wasn't me…' she deadpanned, hoping to defuse the situation. He didn't say a word for what felt like an age. She didn't dare look away, although, without the patch, his ravaged eye socket stared back at her. His remaining eye was bloodshot, and blood streaked the pale cream sheet he grasped in his hands, his fingers having clenched so tightly his nails had cut through his palms.

Eventually, she reached out a hand that she was pleased to see only trembled slightly, and peeled his hands free.

'What the hell was that?' she asked.

'I haven't the faintest idea,' he said in a soft, polished tone that she'd never heard him use before. He stared over her head, looking oddly pensive. 'But unless I'm mistaken, every time-sensitive from here to the Balorian nebula felt it.'

 

In the twilight periods between cycles, the lower levels were always busy. Makeshift stalls laid out with ware that varied from dream-dust to ceratya derivatives; from cybrid components to contraband from a hundred different systems, and frequently in as many stages of decay, depending on how many times it had passed from hand to hand. Nothing down here was fresh or new, and that included the women and others who peddled themselves in the flesh-alleys that branched off the main tunnels.

Most of the less reputable stables had their homes in the small vessels that clung, leechlike, to the main body of this asteroid, welded by space, time and blowtorch to the station, and to each other. Leaky, timeworn and long past their useful life of service, much like those who occupied them.

Illinga was younger than most who ended up down here, but no less used up for all of that. A dream-dust habit had seen to that, and a space-rat just in from a long haul had finished the job by taking half of her face off with a force knife. Whilst the Tribunal had forced him to cough up for the money to have the surgery, it hadn't been enough for a decent job, and had left her on the freaks row; and now, between cycles, heading for Rovan's stall on level six, hoping to score for the night. The last trick had been so drunk, he hadn't even noticed when she lifted his chits.

She had her head down as she scuttled through the outside tunnels. A quick short cut, the outer layers were not the sort of place where you tried to attract attention. You just went through as quick as you could.

She'd just passed the junction that led off towards the Nia's rusting hulk, when she heard the scream. Normally, she'd have just kept on going, but there was something in it that stopped her in her tracks.

Maybe it was the way it cut off so abruptly.

The lights here were dim, kept at minimum levels, as was the air. The shadows seemed to grow deeper, and she suddenly felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickle. She tried to move, prepared to break the first rule and run like hell, except that she couldn't.

In the darkness, something stirred. She imagined she could hear it coming, and her eyes darted wildly, the only part of her body she could move, apart from her hammering heart. She felt giddy, and breathless: the thin air only made her panic worse.

She felt a hand brush hers, and screamed. A face loomed out of the shadows, where before there had been nothing, nothing. She'd have taken any oath to that.

He was dressed in grey; soft grey, soft folds of cloth, a fine robe, that fluttered in the faint breeze of the pitiful air conditioning like wings. And his face…

… it was the face of an angel, she thought, remembering stories from her homeworld. Long golden hair tumbled down to his shoulders. His face was thin, but perfectly proportioned, without a blemish. The nose was straight, the eyes a piercing tawny-gold, and he glowed

The hand tightened around hers. 'Don't be frightened,' he said softly. His voce sounded like tiny bells ringing with a clear, bright music. 'I won't hurt you.'

No, that wasn't what he'd said.

She remembered the scream, and tried to pull away, but he held her tightly.

He'd said: "This won't hurt".

His eyes burned her, boring a hole so deep into her soul, that she couldn't follow. But she felt compelled to try, and felt as though she was running downhill, as she had as a child, landside: that out-of-control-feeling when your feet just won't stop…

The hammering of her heart, which had threatened to deafen her at first, began to slow, and her eyes drifted shut. She sagged, the strength draining from her, and he lowered her to the ground more tenderly than any lover ever had. She surrendered, unable to fight, and not even remembering why she'd wanted to.

The scream that shattered her sweet surrender didn't come from a human throat. The cold hand released her, and dropped her to the floor where she landed painfully, her head banging hard against the rock.

Her beautiful angel was leaning against the wall, his head in his hands. She could hear footsteps, running, getting closer.

Her angel fell to the ground, just a grey-clad figure. Just for a moment.

She closed her eyes, feeling so tired. As she did so, that long, pale, slender hand closed around her wrist again, and she was wrapped in a soft, gentle light. This time, when he called, she followed.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

"The easiest thing of all is to deceive oneself; for what a man wishes he generally believes to be true."

Demosthenes - Olynthiaca

Gwynedd

'You should get that seen to.'

Vivienne stared down numbly at the blood-soaked cloth wrapped around her hand. 'The healers are still busy,' she said faintly. She didn't react as Kastchei took her hand and began unwrapping the improvised bandage. Only when he tugged at the last layer, which was stuck to her skin with dried and drying blood, did she flinch, and take her attention off the closed door opposite the place where she was sitting.

'Ow!' she reacted indignantly. He kept hold of her wrist and called a passing attendant over.

'Stop being a baby,' he chided Vivienne gently. 'You – get someone to bring me hot water, needle, gut, something to clean this cut, and a clean bandage.' The young girl scuttled to obey, and was back in record time. Ignoring Vivienne's protests, he set to work soaking the bandage off, and then cleaning the cut on the back of her hand where Leannan's harpstring had sliced through deeply. 'You're in luck, he said, turning her hand over to get a better look. 'It missed the tendons.'

When she didn't answer, he snapped his fingers under her nose. 'I could just start sewing this without painkillers…'

She dragged her attention back to Kastchei with an effort. 'I'm sorry. It's just…' She looked down at Kastchei's bloodstained shirt. He looked as though he'd just walked through an abattoir. Taliesin's blood had spattered his face, hair and clothes. He'd taken his coat off some time ago, and that lay discarded on a seat nearby, a small pool of blood forming underneath a dangling sleeve.

'Deal with what you can,' Kastchei told her sharply. His free hand cupped her chin and tipped her head slightly until her eyes met his. 'You will feel no pain until I release you,' he told her.

'That is so unfair,' she grumped. She didn't dare look down, but she could feel the slight tugging on her skin as he deftly stitched the edges of her wound together.

'Any news?'

Vivienne turned to look at the new speaker, causing Kastchei to mutter sharply and take a firmer grip on her hand.

Elphin looked haggard, and slumped into the seat next to her.

'They haven't been out yet,' Kastchei told him before Vivienne could speak. He laid down the curved needle and began to bandage Vivienne's hand. 'Has anyone worked out what the hell happened in there yet?'

Elphin shook his head. 'Every single bard and most of those with dragon-born blood felt whatever it was, but no-one can say what it was they felt. Marius is the most coherent of the bunch and he hasn't got a clue.' He gave a pointed look at the closed door behind which the healers still worked on his chief bard. 'Leannan twisted - those strings didn't just snap, they whipped across Tal like high-tension wires, Kastchei – what does that?'

'You should check anything else you have made from branches of Yggdrasil,' the sorcerer told him. 'Whatever that was hit every time-sensitive in the room – possibly even further away. And I don't think it was centred on Gwynedd, or in this time.'

'Any reason?' Elphin asked.

'If it was, we'd all be dead,' Kastchei told him bluntly. 'I want to take a look at the Round Table,' he continued. He stood up and faced down the High King. 'I have a feeling there are a few more questions waiting for us there.'

Elphin stood up wearily, and looked down at Vivienne. 'You'll send word if anything happens?' he asked. His blue eyes blazed with worry.

She nodded. 'Don't worry, you'll be the second one to know,' she quipped half-heartedly. Elphin squeezed her uninjured hand gently, and strode briskly down the corridor, Kastchei at his side.

The route through Caer Tagel from the healerie to the council chamber was a tortuous one at best. The caer like all of its kind had begun life as a small cybrid shell, and had grown outwards from that in a fashion not unlike a chambered nautilus, and as a result many of its older passageways meandered in a somewhat illogical way, unless those who traversed them understood the peculiar properties inherent in the system. Elphin had spent the last twelve years living in the ancient caer, and still had difficulty navigating.

The off-world sorcerer moved through the maze as though he'd lived there all his life.

The chamber that housed the Round Table lay deep in the oldest sections of the caer, underneath the remains of the Black Tower. This close to the heart of the great fortress, the air throbbed with the constant pulse of the engines that powered it. Saturated with sound, the air felt thick and heavy. Moving through it began to feel as though the walker pushed against an unseen wind. Speech was almost impossible – although the throbbing fell just below the threshold of normal hearing, it reverberated through the body, the diaphragm resonating in sympathy, and causing in some waves of dizzyness as the delicate bones in the ear also responded. To shout felt as though disturbing some ancient temenos. To speak normally left most feeling as though they would not be heard.

The welcome release of the silence within the council chamber was almost like a physical blow.

'I'd forgotten how strong this fortress was,' Kastchei said, shaking his head to clear it. 'I'm not surprised you don't need to put guards on this.' He looked around the chamber, noting the bare, faded patches on the walls where battle standards had once hung proudly. With only a little effort, he could conjure mentally the room as he'd last seen it, over two hundred and fifty years before. Morgaine, her long red hair spilling over the pale grey of her armour, sitting in the black throne that occupied the gap where a piece of the table had been crudely hacked out a thousand years ago.

…he'd been forced to his knees at her signal, the two guards holding him ungentle in their persuasion. Defiant to the last, he'd tried to stare her down, confident that even this, he could escape, given time.

'They say you cannot be killed,' she said silkily. Her hands brushed the scabbard that lay on the table in front of her. 'That this was just a smokescreen. Is that true, "Accolon"? Are you truly immortal?' She nodded her head, just once.

The guard standing behind him reached down and broke his neck…

'Kastchei?' Elphin repeated, breaking into his memory. Kastchei placed a hand on the round table to steady himself, and idly rubbed the back of his neck with the other.

'Nothing. Must be the engines,' he said tersely. He walked around the table, examining it minutely. Carved from a single bough of the World Tree, it filled the centre of the room, leaving space only for the chairs which surrounded it. In better days, it had once sat a hundred and fifty knights. Now, only twenty-six high-backed chairs were arranged around its circumference.

When he reached the obsidian throne, he stopped.

'Here,' he said coldly, fingering the warm wood. 'The instability is here.'

'That's always been there,' Elphin said, trotting over to his side, thinking he meant the throne. 'Morgaine had the throne placed there during the Year of Omens.'

'I'm not talking about the throne,' Kastchei said softly. 'Look.'

He ran his finger from the outer edge, across the expanse of the surface to the inner. His finger traced a line of paler wood, revealed by the deep crack that now split the table. Peering more closely, Elphin could see that the crack went right through the thickness of the table.

'What could have done this?' he asked, in awe and not a little fear. Kastchei pushed past him and smiled grimly.

'Why don't we try and find out?' he asked, and sat down in the Black Throne.

The tree stood in the centre of a large clearing, and three springs bubbled up from its dark roots. He stood beside a pool that one such rill fed, and leaned over to look into the inky depths, holding onto the branch that overhung it with one hand, his fingers only just able to curl around the rough bark.

The unnaturally still waters reflected nothing, but as he looked deeper into them, he though he saw, as though through mist, the outline of a man's head.

'I wouldn't get too close if I were you,' said a woman's voice behind him. Overbalancing, he stumbled as he turned, and a strong hand shot out from nowhere and pulled him to safety.

Phoenix smiled at him and pushed long black hair back from his narrow face. 'Close call,' she said gaily, and vanished.

The veiled woman who'd warned him stood perfectly still, a squirrel perched on one shoulder.

'You're not supposed to be here,' she told him.

He looked up at the tree, which arched overhead, into infinity, nine branches darkening the sky that they dominated.

The leaves were already turning; gold and russet, drying and withering although the vegetation surrounding the glade was green and vibrant, the air redolent with the scents of wildflowers and heavy with pollen. Black spots marred the autumnal colours, and the faint sickly odour of decay was just noticeable beneath the heady woodland scents.

'But then,' the woman continued, 'that never did stop you, did it?'

She carried a book in her hands, which she offered to him, unopened.

'What is this?' he asked, suspicious. Curiosity warred with caution: his hand hovered just above the cover.

'The Leabhar Gabhala,' she said softly. 'The Book of Invasions.'

'A myth,' he scoffed.

She smiled sadly through her veil. 'Myths have a way of being true, here, or hadn't you noticed?'

'You need a bard, not me,' he told her roughly.

'But you were the one who came,' she said sweetly. The squirrel chittered at him, as though scolding him, sitting up on its hind legs, tail held high. 'So it is your eyes which must be opened. And after all, you see so much already.'

He opened his mouth to refuse, to deny, but her hand forced his down onto the rough surface of the book, which squirmed under his fingers; warm, smooth, elastic; pliant as flesh, and with a pulse beating under his fingers.

Bowships cut through the sky overhead. Vast creatures shrieked and died in the voids between worlds. A black sun shone balefully down onto a barren landscape, covered in chains. Dark shadows spread out to cover an entire universe. A volcano spat dark fire over the same barren landscape, and monstrous bat-like forms strode across the land, or soared into the air.

The images poured into his mind, a tidal wave that could not be held back, leaving only impressions in its wake.

A white haired man, age-withered, stood beside a stocky, red haired woman with a peculiar scattering of freckles on her round face. The same man, dressed in black, stared out over a landscape wreathed in black smoke, at vast, belching factories, a dour, long-faced man at his side. Or he stood in a council chamber staring down at a severed head, and smiling grimly as he laid out the path that had to be taken.

'None of this is real!' he whispered. 'This never happened.'

'Not to you, no,' Verdani breathed into his ear, her veil brushing his cheek. 'But this is the well of might-have-been, would-have-been and may-yet-be. A man's timeline is a convoluted thing, in a world where time is fettered. It shifts and meanders like a river, and sometimes, if conditions are right, leaves pieces of itself behind to show the path that once was or might-have-been. Especially when its waters are wild and turbulent.'

Nine worlds sputtered and died. Two shadow-worlds faded. Thirteen huge shapes fled the destruction, creating their own refuge from the horrors. And bringing others with them.

'There is always balance', the woman said, her voice cutting through the deluge. 'You can flee everything but yourself, and therein lies the seeds of our own destruction.'

Thirteen men – or one man in thirteen places, stands over the decayed corpse of a fallen ash tree, and the worlds are remade in their image.

Mirror worlds, relying on another for their very form. And so there must be an enemy, and dragons, and dragon-born. In coming here, they gave up their freedom, and this was agreed upon, and welcomed.

The book opened, to show an image: threads untangling, straightening, tied to one common point of origin. Stability, at a cost. Safety, at a price.

'We cannot escape the past,' the veiled woman whispered. 'See…'

Three men stand and watch as a cold darkness pours in from outside, twisting, coiling, writhing, corrupting everything it touches.

The blue dragon, so badly hurt, removing the thing she has kept inside herself for so long, isolated, protected. A piece of the old universe: A relic of old times.

A single black rose blooms, withers and decays: the vines entwine around the void where the world-tree had stood, black thorns spreading, piercing, choking the life from the universe as it spreads…

In another place and time, a red-haired man offers his hand to a petite grey-haired woman.

In another, the watcher keys open the icons on a crystal coffin, releasing the red-haired woman who lies within.

Earlier, he'd freed twelve others from a similar fate.

Ten of them are now dead.

Eleven. A remembrance that twists in his hearts like a knife, a still unfamiliar sensation. It gives him focus.

'This is not why I'm here,' he told her. 'Verdani, enough games – this history lesson of dead worlds that never were is meaningless.'

'Oh Kastchei, Kastchei,' she murmured. 'You know better than that. You more than even the bard know just how much of what will come is drawn from what might have been.'

'Riddles,' he snapped. 'Give them to Taliesin, that is his realm, not mine. I need an answer'

She laughed. 'He is my answer, Kastchei. My mystery It is not the answer you seek, but the question.'

'And that is?' he asked.

'You,' she said coldly.

He pitched sideways from the Black Throne, caught by Elphin before he hit the porphyry floor.

'Now perhaps you know why they call that the "Siege Perilous",' Elphin said half-humorously as he helped Kastchei to his feet. 'Are you always this reckless?'

'I had something of a reputation in my youth,' Kastchei admitted dryly.

'Why does that not surprise me?' Elphin's reply was equally laconic. 'That was foolish: those who sit in the chair frequently see more than they intended; they say Morgaine would spend hours in it, making sense of the images.'

'The table is cut from a living branch of the world-tree,' Kastchei said, running his hand over the deep fissure again, looking thoughtful. 'The obsidian throne amplifies the connection, especially when the one sitting in it is dragon-born – and Morgaine's blood was practically pure. Her time-sensitivity was astonishingly acute for one so many generations removed from the first-born. It takes an extremely disciplined mind to touch that of a dragon directly and make sense of it.'

'Was there any truth to the stories that she could see her path through time to take the course she needed?'

Kastchei nodded. 'Oh yes. How else do you think she caught me, eventually?'

Elphin couldn't resist. 'Given your much-vaunted superiority, I rather thought you let her…'

The Giants' Dance.

'Lists, manifests, reports, lists, more lists…' Taran picked up the crystal ball on his desk and hefted it in his hand. 'I thought we were supposed to be nefarious pirates, not bloody clerks…' Locke's face lifted up from her own papers and her blue eyes meeting his with a definite "make my day" look decided him against throwing it against the wall. He placed the orb back on its stand, and she turned her attention back to her work. He sighed theatrically, and she threw down her stylus so hard that it bounced off her desk and clattered lightly on the stone floor.

'What?' she snapped, glaring at him.

'Nothing,' he countered.

'It's obviously not "nothing", since you just went to such great lengths to attract my attention,' she said icily. 'I allow you to work in my office, don't make me regret the decision.'

'Sorry. Look – what in the name of Annwfn do you expect to find in all of this? We've been over this three times. All I've got out of it so far are a stiff neck and a headache.'

'Then we're still missing something, and we keep looking,' she told him.

'And we're looking for what, exactly?' he asked, a little more facetiously than he'd intended.

Fortunately she didn't take the bait. 'When I find it, I'll know.' She pushed her chair away from the desk abruptly and stood up. 'I'm going for a walk,' she told him, in reply to his unasked question. 'If the Boss wants me, he can bloody well look for me himself.'

Locke strode out of the room briskly, but slowed to a more thoughtful walk once clear. Here in the heelstone of the 'Dance, where only Kane's people lived and worked, she was free to wander as she pleased, lost in thought. Even so, long habit made her keep at least part of her attention on her surroundings – the Giants' Dance was an unforgiving place for those who got too complacent. As her predecessor had found out.

The 'Dance was a busy station, spread out over what had been nine asteroids, moved into position - or so the story ran – by none other than the great Merlin, sorcerer to Arthur, well over twelve hundred years ago. The circular alignment of hollowed out planetesimals, linked by subspace corridors, had in those days been an observation platform – though observing what and for whom, legend was a little short on. During Morgaine's long reign, the station had at first fallen into disrepair, and then into the hands of outlaws and pirates, who'd found it a convenient way station in which to lie low, trade, make repairs and relax.

What had been an informal "hallowed ground" for cutthroats, smugglers and pirates, had become rather more formalised over the years. Kane often complained to Locke that being a pirate "king" had mired him in more bureaucracy than blood, and that he much preferred the latter.

But he stayed, and although he kept to the shadows, he'd never shown any signs that he planned to give it up. These days, Locke put it down to general grumpiness, and ignored his outbursts.

The nine asteroids had been added to over the centuries – hulks, stations, platforms – all sprouted over the 'Dance like barnacles on a landside sea-vessel, almost doubling its available volume.

But not the heelstone: that alone remained unchanged, both inside and out.

One of the longest-lived watering holes on this space borne island resided in the stone's interior, taking up most of levels ten to thirteen. This was Natterjack's, one of the better class of establishments on the 'Dance where those who came to this area of space to do business could go to get their throat cut or their guts spilled. Firstcomers - spacers, thrillseekers, traders and their ilk seeking sensation and adventure - believed it to be one of the safer low-life dens of iniquity and frequently went slumming thinking themselves relatively safe. An illusion both Natterjack and the regulars liked to foster, before clearing up the eyeballs at closing time. So to speak, since Natterjack's, like the station itself, was always open for business.

It was to this cavernous dive that Locke found her feet taking her. She ambled through the mid-cycle crowd with practised ease, station etiquette keeping most people at least a blade's length away from each other in the crush. In a world where most quarrels were settled with a knife, politeness was always at a premium.

She made her way through the labyrinthine series of caves that made up 'Jack's, until she reached her particular zone. Natterjack had set up house in what had once been a series of storage rooms hollowed out of the rock, and it made for an intriguing layout.

Literally. Many of the smaller chambers offered secure rooms where business could be conducted in civilised surroundings, with the maximum illusion of privacy.

Locke never bothered with the backrooms. Her preference was for a more open approach, and Natterjack respected that. She leaned on the bar that took up one end of the section she favoured, and rapped on the surface.

'Don't normally see you in here this early,' Gresham said, handing her a goblet of her usual. Locke took a sip and grimaced.

'Not quite your usual standard,' she replied. She sniffed the contents. The berache had a coppery aftertaste that left a sour note in her mouth. She put the goblet down. 'Jack in?'

Gresham sighed. 'Like he's ever going anywhere, darling. Him and the boss-man ain't moving no place, no time.'

A tall man on the barstool nearby belched loudly and lurched to his feet. A long grey spacer's coat hung off a broad, stooped frame, and a broad brimmed hat was pulled down low over his face. He threw a few coins onto the bar and staggered out, only just avoiding brushing against Locke as he did. Gresham clucked as he picked up the coins. 'Damn spacers,' he growled.

'Lifeblood of the station,' Locke quipped. 'Can I see Natterjack?'

Gresham jerked his head towards the darkest corner of the room, strangely devoid of customers, most of whom crowded in the area near the bar, despite the lack of seating. 'Be my guest. But try not to annoy him – last time you and the Boss showed up down here, he ate three customers, and you…'

'…know how bad that is for business,' Locke finished. 'Bill us.' She left her drink on the bar, and sauntered over to the corner.

The shadows had a way of parting before her as she approached Natterjack, a courtesy on his part, she supposed. Such as it was. Most days, she preferred not to have to look at the bar's owner/operator too closely.

But not even the darkest shadows could have done anything about the smell. It hit her as she stepped out of the protective aura of the lights, as though somehow they'd kept it at bay. It wasn't obvious, as such: a heavy, cloying scent that hinted of death, it clung to her thoughts, like putting her hand into a bag of rotting vegetables – once felt, you never thought it would wash off.

And although used to the sight of the bar's owner, she never quite shook the sense of unease she felt when approaching him.

'Been long time, spider-queen,' Natterjack wheezed. He extended a grey tentacle, which she took gingerly, trying as usual not to flinch at the touch of his cold, wet, reptilian skin.

'You've grown,' she said lightly, taking a seat opposite the huge bulk. And indeed, he had. The demon's toad-like body extruded across at least fourteen feet, excluding his tentacles.

'Troubled times,' he bubbled. 'Size matters.' A grey tentacle slithered across her thigh. 'You know better than most. Boss man not ringing bell, feel free come to Natterjack.'

Not bothering to hide her disgust she lifted the tumescent tentacle off her lap. 'No thanks, 'Jack – you're just not my type.'

The demon laughed, his swollen body undulating grotesquely. 'You be surprised.' More businesslike he continued. 'Felt time-quake last night, your boy did, yes?'

Locke nodded. 'You know something about that?'

Natterjack's body shrugged, sending cold slimy droplets of his fluids over Locke. She wiped away the more obvious matter from her face. 'Felt it. Not here. Long time away, long away. Not why you here though.'

'No.'

'Things move in the darkness. Death comes.'

Locke leaned forwards. 'You see this?'

Natterjack slid a tentacle across again. This time she didn't move as it roamed across her face and down the front of her flightsuit with an almost flirtatious intimacy. 'Three days ago, something woke. Lost good man – Sharven, checking out consignment. Something moves, little spider. Something old. An angel of death. Bad for business.'

The tentacle was drawn back. 'Bad for business,' Natterjack repeated. 'Been here longer even than your boss – got feel for these things.'

Locke, knowing how far the demon's influence extended into the workings of the station, believed him. But portents and rumours didn't solve her immediate problem. 'What was Sharven looking for?' she asked.

'You know unloading bay, Sunstone?' Natterjack gurgled. Locke nodded.

'That's where the disappearences started,' she said. 'Our people found nothing.'

'Try bay six,' Natterjack said, the shadows drawing closer about his vast bulk and hiding him from sight.

'Bay six?' Locke thought for a moment. 'D'Alembert,' she swore under her breath. 'I knew it.'

 

 

Chapter Five

"What I say is, be careful what you see in a man's eyes. Might not be the truth."

Sheriff Lucas Buck – American Gothic

The Sunstone, The Giant's Dance.

Simon D'Alembert stood back from the viewing window and let Kai get a good look at the drakkhar hulk floating on the other side, suspended in its murky amnion. Of the three vats he had currently gestating, this was the nearest to term. The ship was already over a hundred metres long.

'The hull looks impressive enough,' Kai said eventually, turning to face the impassive D'Alembert. 'But she is worthless to me without a weapons-system. I see no trace of a hellbore chamber – just what the hell are you trying to sell me, Simon? I need a warship, not a garbage scow.'

D'Alembert let only a slight trace of his annoyance show as he moved to the portal and keyed up the specifications for the ship. His fingers danced lightly over the incised sigils, and a moment later a delicate tracery hung in the air in front of him – triple helical genetic code, which a muttered command caused to be expanded to show its constituent breakdown.

Kai snorted. 'You know I'm no cauldron-master, Simon. Translate it for me.'

'Just imagine he's just a thick soldier with his brains in his balls and tell it in words of less that three syllables,' a woman's voice purred from the doorway of the observation room. 'You won't be far wrong.' Marya slid into the room and ignored Kai's tightlipped glare.

'You specified weaponry capable of taking out a Setanta-class drakkhar,' D'Alembert said mildly, ignoring in his turn the bickering of his customers. 'I can assure you, that's exactly what I'll deliver – and I have nothing as crude as hellbore mass drivers in mind.'

'Then what do you have for me?' Kai snapped.

Simon smiled. 'Lord Commander – this station has been in existence for over a thousand years. In that time, many secrets have been placed in its vaults. You'd be surprised what can turn up in the oddest places, when you know where to look.'

Marya laid her hand on his arm. 'Would that include the items left behind by Accolon of Galicia?' she asked sweetly.

D'Alembert pulled his arm out of her grasp, and gave her an appraising look. 'You're well informed, for someone hailing from a world lost to the web around the time he was executed.'

Marya shrugged. 'I have my sources,' she whispered archly. 'Accolon funded his rebellion by selling dragon-born secrets to the highest bidders, and the pirates of the un-allied worlds weren't as wary of old-time technomancy, were they?' She didn't wait for an answer. 'Judging by your operation, that's still the case, isn't it?'

'I sense a fishing expedition,' Simon said, a cold smile playing around his lips. 'Dangling enough bait to see who crawls out of the mire long enough to bite, is that it? Just what do you two really want here? One ship - or seven - won't win a war for you.'

He had the distinct sense that his strings were being pulled, and he didn't like it at all. Briefly, he considered killing the pair, but discarded the notion: the rebellion was young, but killing the former Lord Commander of the fleet was likely to bring all of Mordred's forces down on him, and he didn't have the resources for a stand-up fight of that magnitude. And any move that threatened the 'Dance would bring Kane down on his head, and whilst that was a fight he intended to have one day very soon, today was not that day.

'Wait, Simon,' the woman said slyly. 'Just wait.'

D'Alembert shook his head to clear it. 'My patience isn't infinite, Lady Marya.' He felt the need to get away from the pair, if only for a few minutes. 'If you'll excuse me?'

He strode out of the room, feeling his shoulders knotting from tension already. Feeling snappish already, it was just bad luck for the grizzled spacer who crossed his path, that he felt like taking it out on someone. He deliberately knocked into the grey-clad man in the broad-brimmed hat, hoping to start a fight. Killing someone was always so therapeutic.

Picking himself up from the floor a moment later, he felt as though his day couldn't possibly get worse, as he stared up into the shadows cast over the man's face by his hat, and straight into a single blue eye. The man pulled his hat from his head with one hand, and held a short sword lightly in the other, cleared from its scabbard in the same flourish that pushed his coat out of the way. Its mate remained in a scabbard strapped underneath the first.

'Simon, Simon, Simon,' Kane tutted. 'You are having a bad day, aren't you?'

'Not half as bad as my security will have when I space them for letting you through,' D'Alembert snapped. Kane grinned, the effect closer to a wolf's snarl thanks to the pale scar that ran across his face.

'Don't blame them, Simon. I have ways of getting around this station. I just wanted a little look at your customers.'

Attracted by the commotion, Marya and Kai stood in the doorway, staring at the tableau. D'Alembert followed the direction of Kane's cyclopean stare, and saw a look of fearful recognition on Marya's face. Kai looked surprised, but unafraid.

'Lord Kaiwyn,' Kane bowed with a flourish, brandishing the hat as though it had a feather in it. 'It has been a long time.'

'Not long enough. I'm continually surprised by reports of your failure to die.'

'I'm already dead, son, I just ain't found the time to lie down yet,' Kane remarked coldly. 'But m'lord Kaiwyn would know all about kicking the bucket, wouldn't he?'

D'Alembert winced at the implied insult, and stepped out of the way. Kane laughed. 'Don't worry, boy – I've got no axe to grind with this pair. Yet.'

'I'm surprised you concern yourself with such matters,' Kai said smoothly. 'Your neutrality has always been legendary, Kane. We're just here to do business.'

'The kind of business that compromises my neutrality,' Kane replied. He rolled his hat up and stuffed it absently into a pocket. 'I'm hearing stories, Simon. The sort of thing that don't make for easy bedtime reading. Rumour mill says you've been trading organics – would there be anything in that?' He asked the question of D'Alembert, but his blue eye was fixed on Marya, who flushed slightly under his appraising stare.

'You shouldn't listen to rumour, Kane,' D'Alembert told him. 'You know how people like to talk around here.'

Kane grinned evilly. 'Sometimes boy, the trick is to listen with your eyes open.' He sheathed his sword with a fluid motion, and turned away. 'Please, Lord Kai – Lady Marya – do enjoy your stay.' With that, he was gone, vanishing into the corridor with an ambling slouch.

'How in the name of the darkest hell did he manage to find out about our deal?' Kai hissed angrily, whirling round and glaring at D'Alembert, who simply shrugged off their concern, at least, outwardly.

'Relax – he's fishing. He has to be. There's no way he could know everything – if for no other reason than the fact that even I don't know exactly what my final moves will be.'

'You'd better hope you're right,' Marya said, breaking her silence. She'd said nothing throughout the brief confrontation, but had stared at Kane as one might regard a venomous reptile. 'Because if he's half the man he used to be, and he realises what we're up to, none of us will be safe.'

D'Alembert snorted. 'Please. I can handle Kane well enough. You concentrate on helping my people track down and pointing that stray weapon in the right direction, and our beloved ruler will have far too much on his hands to go poking his nose into our business.' He smiled winningly. 'It's long past time I found out if the half-blind old bastard still has what it takes.' He sauntered off, hands in his pockets.

Marya chewed her bottom lip thoughtfully, as she watched him leave. 'We've really walked into a hornets' nest here, haven't we?' she asked.

'All the better,' Kai grunted. He strolled over to the viewport to get another look at the gestating drakkhar. 'So far, I'd say everything is running to plan.'

'For how long?' Marya asked sourly. 'Given the pieces in play on this board, the only certainty is that sooner or later, one unexpected move will upset everything.'

Kai's voice held an insufferably smug overtone when he replied: 'That's exactly what I'm hoping for,' he said softly. 'Dragon bard to king's knight. Forced move.'

His feral smile was reflected in the viewing window as he spoke.

 

Gwynedd.

'Are you sure you're up to this?' Kastchei asked, holding Voronwy's reins in one hand, just out of reach of the red-haired bard's left hand. Taliesin snatched the reins out of Kastchei's hand without a word, and swung himself into the saddle with a light, but not totally spring-footed vault. 'Far be it for me to argue,' the sorcerer said, turning away to hide a smirk.

'Why don't you just pick on someone else for a change?' Taliesin asked, nudging the black into a slow walk beside Kastchei, as the older man made his way to where a groom was tentatively holding onto the very ends of Sivushka's reins. The albino stood as still as a rock, but stared implacably at the nervous stablehand, who scuttled off with obvious relief when Kastchei took the reins from him. 'I swear, you enjoy baiting me.'

'I'm a master of it,' Kastchei quipped, making a standing vault onto the stallion's back look easy. 'Actually, this time, I am concerned. It's only been a week, you lost a lot of blood – most of it over me, I hasten to add, and you still look like death warmed over.'

True enough – the bard, in his habitual black coat, looked even paler than usual, his face still bearing the marks where Leannan's strings had whipped across it when the living wood of the World Tree had reacted to what was still a mysterious assault. Three almost parallel red lines ran across his face from his left temple to the bottom of his right ear, cutting through his freckles like a line of best fit or three on a scattergraph. Other scars were hidden by his high-necked coat and his black gloves, and his left arm was still bandaged, the cuts having only barely avoided slicing through the tendons. He held the reins of the little black stallion in one hand, letting the injured arm hang loosely at his side.

'If I don't get out of the house,' Taliesin replied through gritted teeth. 'I'm going to start shouting at people. I'm fine, now will you please stop fussing? All of you?'

This last was addressed to the other riders who ambled their mounts into the outer yard. Vivienne on a little chestnut mare, Marius on his own cybrid, Baiardo, and Devin and Melanghel on new steeds recently arrived from Breceliande.

'Wouldn't dream of it,' Devin said innocently.

'Perish the thought,' Marius added.

'Race you to the inn then if you're feeling so frisky?' Vivienne grinned.

He pulled a face at her and rode past them all, studiously ignoring them. Once into the open ground outside he kneed the ever-eager Voronwy into an easy canter. Heavy hoofbeats behind him thundered swiftly to catch up, and he didn't have to look round to know that it was Sivushka whose nose touched the black's flank, nipping playfully at his stablemate. He reined in at the top of a small hill, and waited for Kastchei to speak.

'You're right, I was being facetious,' the auburn haired sorcerer said quietly. The two cybrorses dropped their noses to crop at the thick grass.

Caught out by the uncharacteristic admission, Taliesin said nothing.

'You've said little about that night – did you get anything at all from the link to Yggdrasil?' Kastchei asked. He shifted in the saddle to look the bard in the eye. 'Whatever hit the rest of us hit you hardest of all.'

Taliesin shook his head in negation, then had to raise a hand to push his fine red hair out of his eyes. 'The worst of it looked like just a black, sick shadow. Like a decaying flower.'

'A black rose,' Kastchei interrupted, 'crawling over everything, the thorns piercing the remains of the tree.'

Behind them, as though through a veil of mist, they could hear the others cantering to meet them, but still a good quarter of a mile away, left standing by the two stallions.

'You took a big risk sitting in the throne as you did, so soon after such an attack,' Taliesin said quietly.

'Coming from someone who decided to hang himself from the original bloody tree, that, as Vivienne would say, is rich.' Kastchei riposted pithily.

'Bound,' Taliesin corrected absently. Voronwy raised his head and pranced, ears pricked, as he sensed the other horses approaching. Taliesin gathered in the reins, settling the little black. 'Your own vision gave me more information, as it happens.'

Mela was in the lead of the little group approaching, urging her little grey on half a length clear of Marius. They carried on at a gallop past the foot of the hill, laughter wafting up on the evening breeze to the two men watching. Vivienne and Devin trailed behind, content to just enjoy the ride, Cafall's ghostly form dancing beside Vivienne's petite little mare.

'The configuration of the branches is that of the tree as it appears on Orkadia. If the Norns wanted to show you something, that's presumably where we have to look.' Taliesin stared past Kastchei to where the others had turned and were trotting back to meet them. 'Marius and I leave as soon as the Lir can be readied.'

'Not Vivienne?' Kastchei's query was thrown into the air between them matter of factly, but Taliesin still listened for the tell-tale emotional markers.

There weren't any.

'Not this time,' Taliesin said quietly. 'Not for this. It's not really her field.'

'She won't see it like that,' Kastchei warned. Taliesin winced slightly.

'I know.'

The others rode up, horses only slightly blowing, apart from the elderly, homebred Baiardo who wheezed theatrically, flicking an ear back at his rider in mock rebuke.

'Are you two just going to sit there all day and admire the scenery?' Melanghel asked, laughing. 'I'd hoped for more of a race than these two old timers can give me!' She smiled winsomely at Kastchei. 'Perhaps the Lord of Summer could teach me how to phase-shift?'

'I don't think…' Taliesin began, warningly, with a sharp look at Kastchei.

'Delighted,' the sorcerer said, getting Sivushka's attention with a click of his tongue.

'That is a spectacularly bad idea,' Taliesin muttered, watching the albino move off alongside the little grey, then begin shifting in and out of existence.

'Oh lighten up,' Marius snapped. 'She's a big girl now, I think she can take care of herself.' He looked from Taliesin to Vivienne. 'Have you told her yet?'

'Told me what?'

'Have you told Dev?'

Vivienne and Taliesin said together. Vivienne looked at Taliesin's suddenly evasive expression, and put two and two together. 'You're going to Orkadia.'

Marius shrugged. 'Elphin sort of insisted. We need some answers, and the best guess is that we'll get them there.'

Devin sighed heavily. 'Any excuse to leave us behind, as usual,' he drawled with mock resignation. 'Were the pair of you going to tell us, or just leave a note stuck under the door?'

'I know El's looking for a jester Dev,' Taliesin said icily, 'but I wouldn't apply if I were you.'

'Funny man,' Devin snipped back with a sly grin. 'Marco, I think we'd better go and make sure the princess' virtue is safe.' The two rode off, voices soon raised in a good-natured argument.

Vivienne fiddled with her reins, and ran her fingers through the mare's fine mane, not looking at Taliesin.

'It was only decided this morning,' he said eventually. 'It's hardly the kind of mission you could take, you know that.'

'That's not what bothers me,' she replied quietly. 'You're still not fully recovered, and I gather from that little exchange that all you're taking is Marius. With the best will in the world Tal, he's still not fully recovered from Breceliande yet.'

'Who is?' Taliesin asked sharply. She looked up at that, and met his worried, light green gaze. 'You still wake up in the middle of the night crying at times. Kit sometimes still has that look on his face that makes me worry far too much about his sanity, and I can't shake the feeling that I messed up there.'

'You think you have something to prove?' She shook her head slowly. 'Is that it? You could send Dev, or Solange. You don't have to go, not so soon…'

'Yes I do,' he corrected her. 'You know why.'

'The traitor.'

He nodded. 'We still don't know who it is. Until we've got a better idea, I can only trust Marco and Dev – which means one of them needs to stay here. And frankly, Marco's the one I want at my back, one-armed or not. I love Devin like a brother, but he's just a little too flippant at times.'

'Great,' she muttered. 'Leave me cooling my heels here, why don't you.'

Recognising the crisis as past, he grinned. 'Think of it this way, you get to keep Kastchei out of trouble,' he quipped.

She grinned at him and stuck her tongue out. 'I'd need an army.'

The sound of rapid hoofbeats pounding back towards them made her stand up in the saddle to get a better look. Kastchei and Mela were racing back, a lathered cybrid ridden by a journeyman bard in black trailing in their wake.

'Trouble?' Taliesin asked as they drew level, with a sideways grin at Vivienne.

It was Mela who answered for the exhausted bard.

'They've found the Prydwen!'

The Giant's Dance

Locke entered her quarters wearily, a casual flick of her hand closing the door behind her. She scuffed her way over to a chair and sat down to pull her boots off, tossing them, one after the other, into a corner, where they landed on top of yesterday's.

'You're a slob, kiddo.'

She hadn't even realised he was there until he spoke, but he must have been leaning in the doorway to her sleeping quarters all along, because she was certain she'd have heard him move. He stepped into the light now, grey clad, grey haired.

'You should know better than to sneak up on people,' Locke snapped. She slid her dagger back into its sheath at her belt. 'Not to mention doing it in my quarters. Hellfire, boss, you scared the life out of me.'

His grin was brief, but genuine. 'I doubt it. I trained you too well.' He sat down in the chair opposite and placed his feet on her table, ignoring her pointed looks. 'What's our pretty-boy Simon up to, Locke? There's a stink of fear around his demesne stronger than the sewage processors. And is it my imagination or is business falling off lately? Anything you want to tell me?'

'You see too damn much with that one eye of yours, Kane,' Locke replied. She toyed briefly with trying to gloss over her concerns, but decided against it. On the rare occasions he decided to get his own hands dirty, there were two things you had to bear in mind. The first was that you'd better have a fast ship ready if you wanted to get away with lying to him. The second was that he was so damn good at what he did, if you could get him involved, your problem was usually half over.

Usually. The exceptions, however…

He was looking at her now, thoughtful, waiting. Idly, he rubbed at the mangled socket of his left eye, underneath the black patch. Not for the first time, she wondered why he didn't just have it fixed. It wasn't as though he couldn't afford it, after all.

One of many mysteries. She'd learned, largely, to live with them.

'There's been some trouble in the docks,' she explained. 'Leo called it in – a few workers missing on shift. Seems it started about the time Simon's new customers arrived, and might be linked to a shipment they handed over – presumably the payment.' She shrugged. 'You know what the rank and file are like – the slightest hint of anything strange and hackles are raised. It might be nothing.'

'You'd have handed it over if it was "nothing",' he said bluntly.

She shrugged. 'Call it a hunch. Something just didn't feel right. And there are reports coming in from that section that seem a little… strange.'

'Show me,' he ordered.

'Now?' she asked, a little plaintively. He was already on his feet and heading for the door. Somewhere along the way her boots ended up back at her feet. Locke looked glumly at her feet, then at her boss standing at the door, almost filling it. Bulky. Blocky. Massive. Unyielding. She sighed, and began to pull her boots on.

Unlike her quarters, Locke's office was always neat – obsessively so, considering the sheer volume of work that crossed her desk. Those who rambled drunkenly into their ale in the bars about the joys of a piratical lifestyle preying on the shipping concerns of the mercantile guilds and Royal Houses of the Alliance and its satellite systems might have stared in disbelief if anyone had tried to explain the monumental task that co-ordinating the monolithic organisation behind that activity could be. The 'Dance, in days gone by, had been just a refuge – a free port and safe haven for ships and their masters, a place for shore leave and trade, refitting and crewing.

Now it rivalled the largest of the Mercantile Guilds in terms of business conducted, regulated and controlled.

Actually, Kane also owned at least two of the smaller guilds.

Crime was on the verge of becoming a legitimate enterprise. It was certainly profitable.

Locke stood behind her chair, currently filled to overflowing by Kane's muscular bulk, and leaned over him to trace the sigils that opened a concealed compartment in the desk surface. A brazen head rose out of the surface, and hovered about and inch above it, next to her oracular orb.

'Locke,' she snapped out. 'Codephrase "Golden Bough".'

The eyes of the head – that of a clean-shaven young man – opened and blazed with a pale blue light.

'Query?' it asked.

'Collation: missing persons, deaths. Timeframe – three days. Location stone five. Addition: display oracle images, Sunstone loading and storage, bay six.'

'Working.'

Whilst the brazen head collated the data she requested, images from the storage facility played out inside the glassy orb. Kane leaned towards it, staring intently at the images formed. Eventually he sat back. Standing behind him as she was, Locke couldn't see his face, but from the way he rubbed the back of his neck, guessed that he'd seen what she had.

'There's a segment at least half an hour long fuzzed to hell and gone,' he said eventually. 'My guess is some idiot playing around with a screening ward of some kind. Probably a hand of glory. It's centred around that one lock-up. Did you get a look at what was put in there?'

'No such luck – it was already crated,' Locke told him. 'But we did get a report from one of the men who unloaded it.' She called up the description and let him read it. On the desk, the eyes of the head blinked slowly, to let her know it was ready to speak.

'Coffin-like, but covered in traceries of circuitry. Cables running through them. Icy cold to the touch…' He sat back heavily in the chair, which creaked in complaint at the strain it was under. 'Shit. That's all I need.'

'You know something about this?' Locke asked.

'Kiddo, be thankful you don't. Please tell me nothing was taken from that crate.'

Locke shrugged. 'Dunno. They shipped seven in, and seven out. That's all I know, so far. Why?'

'If I'm right, and those are what I think they are - and given where our unwelcome guests have recently come from, I am right - then we could be in for more trouble that you could dream of, kiddo.'

Locke perched on the edge of the table to better see his face, and was struck by how – focussed he looked. There was a distance in his eye that looked right through her, and something moving in that blue abyssal depth that was wholly inhuman. It went beyond ruthless, to a place she couldn't even begin to put a name to.

'I want those reports, Locke,' he said distantly, still staring through her. 'Hard copy only.'

She nodded. Agreement was really the only option she had. 'Can't you tell me what's going on?'

'Later,' he told her. 'When I'm sure.' He pulled himself out of her chair, and loomed over her, looking down at her as though he'd only just really noticed that she was there. 'But I want you to do something for me – top priority.'

She raised one eyebrow in query.

'I want a description given to every security shift. You'll find it in the system. Ask the head to find the file called "Magister".'

'And then?' she asked.

'If anyone shows up answering to that description, shoot on sight, tie the body up, throw it in a cell, lock the door and call me.'

 

 

Chapter Six

"Everbody lies: cops lie, newspapers lie, parent's lyin'. The one thing you can count on – word on the street… yeah, that's solid."

Suicide Kings

 

Gwynedd.

Vivienne sat in the big armchair in front of a roaring fire, her legs tucked under her, and stared moodily into the flames as they flicked up the chimney. A glass of white wine was held unheeded in her left hand. At her feet, a large white hound lay, his huge head resting on his front paws. His ears, red-lined, twitched occasionally and he whined periodically, deep in sleep.

The door opened, bringing with it Kastchei and a strong draught. The sorcerer closed the door behind him and strode silently over to the table. Still without a word, he poured himself a glass of wine and downed it in one. Topping up the goblet again, he took a seat in the chair on the opposite side of the hearth, and sat back heavily.

Cafall lifted his great head from his paws and looked at him, stretched, yawned, and put it back again with a deep woof.

Vivienne reached down a hand and patted him idly. 'Hush, boy – it's only Kit.'

'Only?' Although his voice was light hearted, his hearts obviously weren't in the repartee. She waited, knowing that sooner or later, he'd say something – whether or not it would shed any light on his mood, however, was debatable.

'That hound is getting fat, Nina- what are you feeding him?'

'He's big-boned,' she quipped, patting the hound lightly on the flank. 'And whilst I can put up with a good moody sulk as well as the next girl, that's not what's been on your mind since the council briefing yesterday.'

'Your interview technique is rusty,' he said flatly.

'When I start quizzing you, you'll know about it,' she retorted. 'That's more along the lines of a "Something's eating you, get it the hell off your chest," sortie.' She tilted her head slightly and fixed him with her most determined look. 'In case you hadn't realised, I'm not that intimidated by this whole "I'm a cold-hearted bastard, leave me alone" routine.'

'You've seen Talya off, I take it?' he asked, changing the subject. She sighed, admitting defeat, and nodded.

'Him and Marius. Dev's drowning his sorrows in the inn down the road.' Refusing to be distracted, she tried to drag at least some response from him. 'Elphin's sending us to the Giant's Dance to check out the story about the Prydwen.'

Gotcha, she thought triumphantly, as she noticed the oh-so-imperceptible flinch when she mentioned the station.

'A dangerous place, when I knew it last,' he said quietly. 'I'm not sure you shouldn't have more back-up than just one bard.'

She bristled at that. 'Are you saying I'm not up to it?'

'No,' he replied. 'I'm saying exactly what I mean – the Giant's Dance isn't the safest place in the universe. It's a safe haven for some of the worst pirates, mercenaries and villains you'll ever hear of – not to mention a clearing house for technologies and technomancies legal and not.'

'They say the man who runs it values the station's neutrality,' she said lightly. 'He'll not allow a representative of the Ard rí to be molested, surely?'

'Out of interest,' he asked, 'just who does run that den of iniquity these days?'

'I'm told a giant of a man – dragon-born. They say he lost an eye fighting the goddess of death herself…'

'A large man –over six and a half feet tall. Blond hair, going grey. Scars running from the patch over his left eye across his nose and onto the right cheek. Built, as the saying goes, like a brick outhouse, and utterly ruthless. Likes the sound of his own voice, especially when uttering portentous moral platitudes.'

The bitterness in his tone was unmistakable.

'These days he calls himself Kane,' he continued. 'He lost the eye to a woman he made the mistake of loving, and the other scars he got when his ex-comrades managed to shoot him in the back whilst he was busy butchering them. But then, that pur-blind bastard knows all the nuances of treachery – he was the one who sold me out to Morgaine, over two hundred and fifty years ago.'

Vivienne waited, watching as neutrally as she could, knowing he'd continue.

'I needed help to take Morgaine on – I knew early on in arranging the events leading up to "Accolon's" rebellion that I couldn't hope to do it all, and so I took a chance. I knew about the sleepers – I'd spent a hundred years serving Ygraine, waiting and watching, after all,' he said softly, staring past her, lost in the past. 'I chose twelve renegades – those who hadn't been modified. One of them, you met.'

'Yuri?' she asked gently, knowing that the death of his friend at Kai's hands was still a raw wound. He nodded.

'So you collected a sort of "Dirty Dozen?"' she quipped. 'Figures.'

He ignored her levity. 'We'd planned one final attack on Caer Tagel itself – and it was during that raid that we were betrayed. Yuri was on Murom, waiting for orders once we'd succeeded. Kane I'd sent away beforehand to arrange the escape route. Instead, he sold us all out to the highest bidder.

The others were killed in the raid. Morgaine captured me, had me "executed" a couple of times, then shipped to the Dance as an "example".' He took a long draught of wine. 'Kane gave her the means to contain me, to keep me on the edge of dissolution for almost seven years. Yuri finally came after me, freed me, and managed somehow to stop me from killing him as a reflex action long enough for what was left of my wits to recover some semblance of sanity.' He paused. 'You know, the knowledge that the two men in this universe I'd most like to kill are in the same place is a tempting target'

'Revenge isn't everything.'

He gave her a peculiar look. 'No, but it's a start.' He smiled grimly. 'Don't purse your lips like that – I can live without the lecture you've got on the tip of your tongue. For the record, I've got no intention of going near that place again. If you've got any sense, tell Elphin to find someone else to go – steer clear. Only death waits there.'

He stood up abruptly, startling Cafall, and swept haughtily out of the parlour, his back ramrod straight, more tense than she'd seen him in a long time.

Cafall laid his head on her lap and she ruffled his red-lined ears roughly. 'I know,' she told the hound. 'Tells you the whole story and still leaves the important bits out.' She stared at the closed door Kastchei had walked out of, as though it could reveal deeper secrets about the man she'd come to know at once so well, and, at times, so little. Revenge wasn't the only thing on his mind – there was a more worrying emotion in his clouded grey eyes this night. She'd seen it in the council chamber, when the messenger had recited his news, and first spoken the name of Prydwen's location.

Fear was perhaps too strong a word, and one she found difficult to associate with a man who prided himself on his strength of body and will.

But was it the idea of facing the 'Dance, and his past pain that he feared, or was it the fear that doing so might re-awaken that monster within? Either way, the situation was a threat to his prized control, and it was that threat that the darker side of Kastchei Bes-mertny thrived upon.

You couldn't fall as deeply into the abyss as he had done, and emerge unscathed: he would always carry that darkness within. She knew, and accepted this. But for him to face the pain and horror that had driven him to the brink of madness, so soon after regaining a precarious mortality – she found herself wondering if he could do so without foundering in his own darkest impulses.

Despite an early start the following morning, she couldn't take herself to bed until well past midnight.

 

Morning, and the crisp autumn air carried with it the rich, mulchy tang from the forest nearby. Rain in the night had left the ground sodden and spongy underfoot, and the heavy weight of the dromond was causing its splay-footed pylons to sink into the ground. Vivienne ducked under one wing, and let her hand rest on the warm surface, leaning casually as she watched a lean figure stroll over.

'Ready?' Devin asked. He slipped past her and stowed his instrument case just inside the hatch, and stood beside her. 'Viv? I'm here, let's go.'

'Not yet,' she said softly. She pushed her wind-blown hair back from her face, not looking at the dark-haired bard.

'What are we waiting for?' he asked.

She took her hand off the wing and straightened. 'Not what. Who. And he's here.'

Devin stared, slightly opened mouthed, as Kastchei strode over, Cafall gambolling at his heels. Without a word he swept past Devin, and into the dromond, the hound at his feet. Vivienne followed him in, a slight smile playing around the corners of her mouth, and shaking his head, Devin followed.

She left the controls to Devin once they'd cleared orbit around Gwynedd and entered the otherspace between worlds. Kastchei had taken the larger quarters – her own, on this trip, but then, she hadn't expected him to bunk with Devin. He was sitting on the bed, Cafall at his side. Waiting.

'You have the insufferably smug look of someone who just won a bet with herself,' he said.

She clucked to Cafall, but the hound just looked up, and placed his head back on Kastchei's lap. 'You didn't have to bring Cafall with you,' she replied.

'Indulge me,' he said. 'The pack I developed have some useful skills – we might need him.'

She sat down on the other side of the bed. 'Why?'

'Change my mind?'

She nodded.

'Too many reasons. Revenge. Curiosity. Concern for your back, and my own. Or would you prefer me to say that I can't - and won't – run away from my own past?'

'With you, all of the above,' she retorted glibly. More warmly: 'I'm glad you're here.'

He grinned. 'What's the matter, your black canary not enough for you?'

'He's not Tal,' she said simply.

'No,' he said, 'and that's something we might regret before this is over. Talya at least might stand a chance of handling Kane. Devin I'm not so sure of.'

'And me?' she asked cheekily.

'Kane likes to play it hard – he talks and moves like a mindless thug most of the time, but he's faster than he looks, and he's bright. Hardly surprising, since he's even older than I am – a relic of times even my people wanted to forget. Never, ever underestimate him – he's almost as dangerous as I am.'

'Almost?' she arched an eyebrow. He ignored the quip.

'He won't be fooled by any charade, so don't try anything elaborate.'

'If he's that good, how do you plan to get to him?'

'You assume I want to kill him?' He laughed. 'I never waste a possible resource, Vivienne. I might want his head on a plate, but I've every intention of using him to get to our real quarry first.'

The matter-of-fact ruthlessness was chilling. He must have seen her slight shiver, because he laid a hand on her cheek. 'You know what I am, Vivienne – but never think that it would be directed at you.'

'Unless I betrayed you,' she pointed out. He leaned forwards and kissed her lightly on the cheek.

'You wouldn't,' he told her, 'It's not in you.' He laid a hand on her cheek, then pulled away abruptly. 'That damn hound is watching every move I make,' he growled, glaring at Cafall, who lay beside them, staring up balefully at his mistress and his creator. The hound's whiplike tail thumped against the bed energetically. 'Off!' he ordered. Cafall ignored him, and inched closer instead. Laughing, Vivienne ordered the hound off the bed, and he bounded away to lie in a corner.

'He's still watching,' Kastchei murmured into her ear a few moments later.

'Doesn't seem to be cramping your style,' she whispered back. She disentangled herself. 'I ought to get back to the flight deck and spell Dev. I'll tell him to give you a call later. We'll be a couple of days in flight – makes sense to take turns.'

After she'd left, Kastchei gave the hell-hound a long hard stare. 'You and I,' he said calmly, 'are going to have to have a long hard talk sometime about territory.'

Cafall just woofed at him, and dropped his head onto his paws, feigning sleep.

The Giants' Dance.

Taran poked his head around the door warily. 'Locke – I've got a messenger from Leo. Says it's urgent.'

Locke pushed a strand of ice-blonde hair off her face and tucked it behind her ear, where it refused to stay put. 'I'm coming,' she sighed. She passed her hand over the vates orb and it clouded over, obscuring the images she'd been staring at.

'Anything to do with our problem? Taran asked. She pushed past him without waiting for him to step out of her way, almost sending him flying.

'Perhaps. Kane had a few leads that he wanted me to check out. What's Leo's problem?'

Taran introduced her to the messenger. 'This is Ronan, Leo's -'

Locke nodded sharply. 'I know him.' She sat on the edge of Taran's desk, bracing herself with both arms to her side, palms flat to the table. 'Ro?'

The messenger inclined his head. 'Locke.' He shuffled slightly, looking a little awkward, but maintained eye contact. 'Leo says he's sorry to trouble you like this, but there's something you have to see.' He reached into the inner pocket of his coat and pulled out a rolled sheet of durafilm. Locke took it from him without comment, but didn't unroll it. 'It's chaos down there, Locke. If it wasn't for the fact the word seems to have got out, we wouldn't have the crews to clear the cargo coming through.'

Taran coughed. 'We're talking about – what? At most, a dozen deaths in the past few days? It's not enough to cause this much panic.'

'It is when there's something else at work,' Locke said. She unrolled the durafilm, and scanned the broadsheet. '"Death stalks the Night". D'Alembert wants to sack his copy-editor.' She three the film onto the desk casually. 'Simon's building this up out of all proportion – I'm surprised Leo's panicking over a few rumours in the tabloids.'

Ronan shrugged. 'Perhaps. But it's not just the broadsheets, Locke, and you know it. Tales are spreading round the station like wildfire: there's talk of a "Grey Man" who brings death wherever he walks. I've spoken to those who claim to have seen him, Locke. We've got the entire stone running scared, afraid to go into the outlying areas. If this spreads to the other stones…'

'It already has,' Locke told him abruptly. She stood up, and drew herself up to her full height, a good four inches taller than the hapless deputy port director. 'Two reports in from the Starstone came in earlier today.'

'And Kane still does nothing?'

Locke smiled coldly at Ronan. 'We need to locate and identify the threat, before we can act.'

'Then it might be best if you got on with it, wouldn't it?' the deputy said softly, his voice taking on a far less subservient manner.

Taran stepped forward, but stopped as Locke raised her hand.

'Is that a threat?' she asked quietly.

Ronan shrugged. 'Let's just say that Leo says to tell you that he can quite easily bring this entire station to a standstill if things don't improve. And if our people aren't protected by the Boss, they can make life around here as difficult as possible. If you get his meaning.'

'We get it,' Taran said tightly. Ronan turned on his heel and left. After he'd gone Taran rounded on Locke. 'Why didn't you do something?'

'Like what? Tell him we're on top of it? Leo knows damn well we're not.'

'Then why aren't we?'

'Do you want to go looking for this thing on your own?' She picked up the durafilm again. 'Where this thing goes, people die, or go mad and die. We can't detect it, scrys are useless, the psis can't find it, we've tried everything we know to track it, and found nothing. It's as though it doesn't even exist.'

'But it does, because we see the effects,' Taran replied. 'It follows that there must be a cause.'

'You'd think so, wouldn't you?' said Locke. 'Kane says otherwise, but won't tell me what he suspects, not yet.'

'Then what do we do?'

Locke balled the durafilm sheet between her fingers and through the crumpled mass at the wall. 'Hope we get a chance to track this creature if it slips up. Hope that we can work out what Simon is up to with his clients. Hope that we get a break somewhere down the line, because up to now, we've got nothing. Squat. Diddly.'

'Except hope,' Taran quipped lightly.

'Kid,' Locke drawled, 'that's the worst of the lot.'

 

Tracking the creature itself was a futile exercise, but Simon D'Alembert had an advantage over Kane's floundering people: he knew what to look for. The trick, as Marya's information had suggested, was not to track the creature, but the trail it left behind, and from that trace its possible path. Even though sated, after that first dreadful need to slake the hunger that would have gnawed at it since it had awakened, it would glide through the shadowy corridors, staying in the more isolated areas, but drawn to death like a lodestone.

D'Alembert had grown up landside, on one of the rough frontier worlds outside the Alliance. An upbringing that had served him well over the years.

In finding any trail you had to follow two rules: know what the creature you tracked wanted, and where it could get it.

A predator wanted prey, the easier the better. And on the Dance, that was best found in the lower levels. Thus far, the creature's trail fitted that assumption, keeping mostly to the Deeps, taking those foolish enough to be wandering away from the more public areas.

And he didn't have to look too hard for the traces he sought. The station reeked of fear, leaving an almost tangible trail, for one who knew how to find it.

Besides, the screaming was always a dead giveaway.

Panic, as usual. D'Alembert sneered as he watched from the shadows. A body on the floor, and the usual mix of those who wandered past to look, those who wandered past trying to look as though they weren't looking, those who took a closer look hoping for whatever slim pickings from the corpse they could take whilst no-one was looking, and the rare handful who actually wanted to help

'Don't touch him!' one of them called out. A woman.

The screaming hadn't stopped, and D'Alembert watched impassively, seeing a woman curled up into a ball on the floor, screaming, and tried to claw her eyes out with her fingers.

A man was babbling nearby

'I saw it, clear as day – the blade went right through him!'

Everyone seemed to be talking at once.

'I saw him – just for a moment…'

'A grey man…'

'He just reached out and touched him…'

'…vanished into thin air…'

D'Alembert had the information he needed. A murmured spell conjured the trace he was looking for. Blood, of a certain sort, already fading to normal sight, but not to the time-sight.

He needed a hound to track it, he realised, watching the trace fade into the shadows. A pity then that he couldn't lay his hands on the one thing he needed to track it properly.

He'd have to use live bait.

He pulled a small crystal orb out of his pocket, and stared into its milky depths, until a face formed inside the sphere. 'Get me Eliavres,' he snapped at the hapless operator.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seven

"Necessity mother of invention, but sometimes step-mother of deception"

Charlie Chan's Secret

 

Devin scanned the readouts again, and hastily asked the ship to come to a stop. Tell-tales on the panels changed from red to amber, and he breathed a sigh of relief.

'Ward-bouys. Nice of someone to warn me,' he muttered. He reached out and brushed a finger lightly over the teleos channel. 'Let's see if anyone's listening. Station control, this is the Sorcha requesting docking clearance. Please respond.'

The reply was instantaneous and abrupt. 'You are clearing the outer beacon range for the Giants' Dance, and entering neutral territory. Please state your designation, planet of origin and business.'

'Bureaucracy. Nothing changes,' Devin muttered under his breath. 'So much for the wild world of piracy.' He passed his hand over the console to activate the teleos. 'Giants' Dance, this is the Sorcha, a diplomatic ship registered to the Ard rí's court on Gwynedd, we're here on the personal business of the Ard rí, and request an audience with the Lord of the Dance.'

'Who requests the audience?'

'Master Devin Starkadr, of the cynfeirdd; Lady Vivienne of Avallion, the Ard rí's personal representative, and Kastchei Bes-mertny, Lord of Breceliande.'

In the lengthy pause that followed, he heard Kastchei's heavy tread, and Vivienne's lighter footsteps behind him.

'Ballsy,' Vivienne muttered. 'I didn't know we were going for the direct approach.'

'His idea,' Devin said, jerking a finger back over his shoulder in the general direction of Kastchei, without looking. 'Don't blame me if it all goes pear shaped.'

'You're the bard, if it goes wrong, you'll just have to talk our way out of it,' Kastchei said. 'You don't try slipping in under Kane's radar – can't be done. Disguises, false idents – quickest way to trouble with a man who knows every trick in the book.'

'Coming from the man who wrote it, I'm not sure whether that's good or not,' Vivienne quipped. 'Wow.'

This last was occasioned by the Sorcha finally coming within visual range of the station. The 'Dance was now framed in the viewport of the flightdeck, and Vivienne stood open mouthed, staring at the sight.

The station was larger than she'd imagined. Nine separate accumulations of debris floating in space formed a vast necklace of –

Junk. Quite simply. A network of artificial walkways and a shimmering transport web formed a complicated net between the various "stones". Most of the original asteroids were buried beneath centuries of accumulated junk – spaceships in various states of disrepair, the remains of platforms and artificial stations. Here and there even portions of organic drakkhar or dromonds, surfaces dulled in death, lodged in the wrecks like so much garbage. Only when one of the ships began to pull away from the misshapen accumulation of ship parts and other debris, did she realise that not all of the "junk" was derelict.

One stone however remained largely unmodified, and it was this, that lay slightly outside the ring, like a pendant, that they were being guided towards.

'The heelstone,' Kastchei said in reply to her unspoken query, as though reading her mind. 'I presume it's still Kane's main base of operations.'

'So it's this Kane we're seeing?' Devin asked. 'Do we have an introduction?'

'After a fashion,' Kastchei said, so carefully neutral that inwardly, Vivienne flinched. He took two paces forward and removed the hellfire pistol Devin was about to holster from the bard's hand. 'No sidearms. They don't permit hellfire or projectile weapons on board the Dance – a little preoccupation with pressurised atmospheres,' he explained. 'Swords and daggers only.'

'How delightfully primitive,' Devin sneered. 'Haven't they ever heard of dampening wards?'

'I rather think they hold such things in the same light as your guild holds printing presses and recording devices,' Kastchei shot back. He held out the pistol. 'If you want to go armed, be my guest. I won't stop you taking it.'

Cafall, always sensitive to mood, growled uneasily at Vivienne's side, and she laid a hand on the hound's head.

Devin shook his head, breaking the tension. 'I'll take your word for it.'

'Good. Now, I believe Control wants to speak to you again.' He strode out before Devin had even completed his turn back to the panel.

Vivienne followed him from the deck, Cafall at her heels.

'He's twitchy,' Kastchei said, once they were out of earshot. 'Is he always like this?'

Vivienne wrinkled her nose. 'Not usually. He's not been his usual bubbly self since I got back – I put it down to Marco's injuries. The two are very close, as I'm sure you noticed.'

'Never mix business with pleasure,' he said, with a sly sideways glance at her. 'He's not giving me much confidence so far. Keep him out of my way when we land – we don't want any trouble from the start.'

'Are you sure this is such a good idea?' she asked.

'Which bit?'

'Being so open? I mean, Kai will probably know within hours that we're on board.'

'Vivienne – I hunt with hounds, not bows or snares. My prey always knows I'm coming, but I still catch my quarry. There's a time to be devious, and a time for flushing the game and running it until it drops with exhaustion.'

'Or turns and stands and bay and gores you,' she muttered darkly.

'Trust me,' he told her lightly, although his eyes were a cloudy grey as he stared over her head, at the station ahead. 'I know what I'm doing.'

The dock they were escorted into resembled the bays on board the Setanta or the Prydwen as much as anything else, Vivienne thought as she looked out from the window next to the ramp before they disembarked. A large cavernous hollow carved out of the rock of the original asteroid, she guessed, judging from the bare rock. The bay was open to space, protected by a force wall, as were most such facilities, wards being much more reliable than physical barriers, and much less wasteful of precious air. The last vestiges of the pale amber glow faded from around the Sorcha, leaving her in (hopefully) normal atmosphere. She fiddled with the twisted filaments of her shield-torc, wondering if leaving it activated would be too paranoid.

'The atmosphere is normal,' Kastchei said, swivelling his own torc into place, however, and tugging his high collar over it. 'I doubt even Kane would be that obvious. Far easier not to let us on board at all.'

'I hope you're right.' Devin sauntered into view, in his best dress coat, hair neatly tied back in a pony-tail for once. Vivienne grinned, and he stuck his tongue out at her. 'What? I can do formal when I have to, you know.'

Cafall woofed.

'My sentiments exactly,' Kastchei murmured. To forestall any argument, Vivienne opened the hatch.

'Gentlemen? I think we'd better go down – I think the welcome committee just arrived.'

The bay was almost deserted: for what most reports had described as a perennially busy port, it was strangely subdued. Only one other ship shared their dock, and that seemed to be prepping to leave. A handful of workers stacked crates in one corner, looking warily at them as they walked past, to where a group of three men and a tall blonde woman were standing.

Vivienne had to lay a restraining hand on Cafall's head: the white hound's hackles were raised, and he walked stiff-legged, growling low in the back of his throat, with a peculiar whine. She exchanged a glance with Kastchei, but the Hunter looked as puzzled as she felt. He shrugged a "don't know" at her, but she noticed his hand stray to the hilt of his sword.

'Anyone else notice how quiet it is?' Devin asked.

'Could be an off shift period?' Vivienne suggested doubtfully.

'They've always operated a continuous shift system,' Kastchei said quietly as they continued across the huge open floor of the bay. He looked a little twitchier than usual, and Vivienne didn't blame him. The ceiling stretched above them to a height that must have been well over two hundred feet, and the deserted floor area gave them no cover at all. 'Leave the talking to me,' he ordered softly, as they neared the group. The woman stepped forward as though to greet them. 'I'll handle this.'

A few moments later, looking down the point of a long sword held by the tall blonde, who had a very determined "make my day – please" look on her face, Vivienne put her hands on her head and muttered out of the corner of her mouth: 'Next time, let Devin do the talking?'

'Silence!' the woman snapped. Kastchei stepped forwards.

'I'm sure there's been a slight misunderstanding,' he purred, staring into her eyes.

The woman sighed heavily.

'Indeed,' she purred huskily. 'But not by me.'

She barked an order to one of the guards surrounding them.

Something thick and heavy seemed to land on Vivienne's shoulders, and the world went black.

 

'I thought I told you to kill him on sight.'

Vivienne lay still, not daring to open her eyes. The voice was deep, harsh, with a faintly familiar twang that she couldn't quite place.

'I would have done, but the scrys showed that although the outward appearance matched, the physiological scans were completely incompatible. The data you showed me was for little more than a construct – a homunculus of sorts, I suppose. This man came in under diplomatic credentials from the Ard rí's court, Boss – he's a Lord of the Alliance, dragon-born and a member of the Council -what was I going to do if I was wrong?'

The woman from the docking bay.

'Trust me, it's him all right, though how he managed it is something I'm gonna love getting out of him. The others?'

'A bard – according to our records, one of the cynfeirdd. Devin Starkadr: a singer and dreamweaver. Whatever the latter means.'

'It means he can manipulate the sleeping mind. Useful little talent. The woman?'

'Vivienne ap Gaibnenn. Turned up about twenty years ago, with the bard Taliesin, and helped Elphin win his crown. Our agents speculated that she operates as some kind of troubleshooter for the Ard rí. Apparently claims to be from Avallion, and court gossip we picked up links her to Merlin in that dimension.'

'Figures,' the man grunted. 'Always knew how to pick 'em. Small, feisty, capable, and not doing a very good job of feigning unconsciousness.' She felt him kneel at her side, and a hand large enough to cover her face turned her head.

She opened her eyes and looked up into a shadowed face, one blue eye gazing at her from a broad, scarred visage. An old scar ran from underneath an eyepatch that covered his left eye, across his nose and down over his right cheek. The hand that now released her was also scarred, ridges of scar tissue running across both palm and the back of his hand, vanishing into his sleeve. Slab-like muscle shifted under the tight fitting shirt, the overwhelming impression one of brutish power, the effect heightened further by a severe crew cut.

'You must be Kane,' she said as brightly as she could. How do you do, I'm-'

'Lady Vivienne. I know.'

She looked around for Devin and Kastchei, but saw only the latter, still out cold on the floor nearby, trussed up like a chicken.

'Forgive the precautions,' Kane said, 'but I couldn't take any chances. Sorcerers are such a tricky lot. Especially when you have reason to believe they might want you dead. He'll stay like that until I get some assurances.'

'Such as?'

He beckoned, and the blonde woman strode over and handed him a small gemstone. 'You see this?'

Vivienne nodded.

'It's a wardstone. In a moment, I'm going to give you the means to bring that monster there back to consciousness. You will tell him that if he so much as burps in a manner I don't like, you'll be dead in less than a heartbeat.'

'You're assuming he cares,' Vivienne said tartly. Kane grinned mirthlessly.

'True. But he'll be next.' The woman unholstered a hellfire pistol. 'I'll break my own rules on this one, but I'm sure he'll get the message. Hellfire wounds don't regenerate, and my people assure me he's as pretty a package of dragon-born biodata as they've ever seen.' He handed her a small syringe filled with an amber liquid and stood up 'Oh – and Lady?'

She looked up.

'If you try anything, I'll shoot the dog.'

With that, they both left the cell, the door sliding shut behind them with a suitably ominous thunk.

Vivienne untied the bonds holding Kastchei, then thought better of it and retied his hands behind his back. Only then did she administer the drug, and scuttle out of range.

The reaction when he awakened was pretty much what she'd expected – a violent lunge, and a furious snarl when he realised he was tied. The blazing glare turned in her direction held so much anger that it was all she could do to maintain both eye contact and her composure.

The violence in his eyes faded almost as soon as it appeared, but she still kept her distance. The intense violet hue of his irises faded to a clouded grey before she risked talking.

He beat her to it.

'Was this really necessary?' With his hands still tied behind his back he stood in front of her, testing the bonds.

She just looked at him, daring him to tell her that it wasn't.

'I take it this is Kane's idea of hospitality?' he asked eventually, looking round. 'What's the deal?'

She outlined the conversation she'd had with the giant, and he laughed grimly.

'Typical. Unnecessary, but typical. I did tell you I wouldn't kill him straight away.'

'Given how twitchy you get when someone wakes you up unexpectedly, excuse me for thinking that you might break his neck first, repent later.' Vivienne replied tartly.

'I might have broken his neck, but I'd never have repented.' Kastchei's hands were suddenly freed and in front of him, and he threw the bonds over Vivienne's head before walking to the door. 'You still can't tie a decent knot,' he told her, as he examined the door. Pulling a face at him behind his back, she brushed the cords out of her hair, and made her way to his side.'

'How long did it take you to get those off?' she asked.

'Too long. I'm out of practice.' He banged on the door three times with his fist, the sound a slightly hollow thunk. 'Open the door, you half-blind cretin, I know you can hear me.'

The door swished open, to reveal the giant and his leggy blonde companion.

'Slowly, Kastchei. But feel free to call my bluff, please.'

'I know it must gall you not to be the centre of attention, old man, but this time, I'm not here for you,' Kastchei said smoothly. He slid through the doorway gracefully, and past the woman's watchful gaze behind the hellfire pistol's sights. Vivienne bobbed past the woman a little more nervously. 'Interesting new look you've got, Kane. Sort of a cross between convict and grizzled space-dog. I assume you think it makes you look more dangerous?'

'Better than looking like some damn hippy,' Kane growled back. 'And here was me thinking that I could escape the horror of the mullet in this dimension. And what's with the eyes?'

'Are you still using that office on level nine?' Kastchei asked, ignoring the last question. He stood in front of the larger man, arms behind his back, legs apart, and just waited. 'I think we should talk in more civilised surroundings, don't you?'

When Kane eventually nodded and gestured to Kastchei to lead the way, the smaller man added: 'after all, one has to make up for the company.'

Vivienne noticed the blonde make a sharp intake of breath at the same time she did, and exchanged a knowing look with her. The stony-faced woman gave an infinitesimal shrug, and Vivienne grinned.

Without acknowledging Kastchei's barb with anything more than a tense pair of shoulders, the giant gestured to them to take the left-hand corridor, keeping a safe distance behind Kastchei, the wardstone held firmly in his meaty fist.

'Is he always like this?' Vivienne whispered to the woman at her side, whilst jogging to keep pace with the longer strides of the other three. The woman shared a conspiratorial glance with her.

'Is yours?'

Vivienne grinned and nodded, and the woman smiled back. 'Vivienne,' she whispered, offering her hand. It was taken briefly.

'Locke.'

 

The room they were escorted to was not an office, as such, but a large chamber, about thirty feet across. Several expensive Iskandan rugs were thrown with deliberate abandon on the floor, and the room held a decidedly casual style – large cylindrical bolsters were scattered at intervals around a central, circular, low table made of ebony, with large cushions underfoot. Without waiting for an invitation, Kastchei dropped elegantly onto the largest of these, and leaned back against the rich burgundy and cream brocade bolster, the colours perfectly complementing his dark green coat and cream shirt. Vivienne had to stifle a grin at the move – so typical of the man. Kane took a seat cross-legged on the floor opposite and Vivienne took up her own station next to Kastchei.

The blonde stood behind Kane, and didn't holster her pistol.

'If you're going to use that,' Kastchei drawled, nodding towards the wardstone, 'I'd do it now, because I'm going to get very annoying very quickly. Just thought I'd warn you.'

Vivienne gave him a sharp look, since the stone was the item that put her life on the line, but he ignored her, his gaze fixed very firmly upon the one eyed giant.

Who crushed the stone to powder within his fist. Vivienne screwed her eyes tightly shut, then opened them warily one at a time as nothing happened. Kane let the dust trickle through his fingers.

'I still don't trust you,' he told Kastchei. 'Call this one a gesture of good faith.'

'Trust?' Kastchei scoffed. 'Just who was it who sold the other out? Remind me?'

'I did what I had to. I got you out eventually.'

'Yuri got me out,' Kastchei snarled.

Kane shrugged. 'Have it your way. But Yuri couldn't have even farted on this station with Morgaine here if I hadn't helped him. Who the hell do you think got you both off it? Who kept your worthless hide out of the hands of Morgaine's nechronomancers so that you could be rescued?'

'Did it take you two hundred years to come up with that excuse?' Kastchei sneered.

Kane leaned back, resting on one elbow, hands clasped. 'Ask Yuri.'

'Yuri's dead.'

The bald statement lay between the two men, as heavy as a tombstone. Surprisingly, Kane backed down.

'I'm sorry,' he said, no trace of belligerence or sarcasm in his voice. 'How?' he asked.

'Ask his killer, you're harbouring him,' Kastchei told him, his voice coldly acidic.

Kane gave him an appraising look, and rubbed his eyepatch. 'Is that why you're here?'

'Actually,' Vivienne began, 'that's only part… Ow!' She glared at Kastchei, whose foot had just kicked her ankle.

'For once, I get to mix business with pleasure,' Kastchei continued, as though she hadn't spoken. 'The man I want also happens to be wanted by the High King for treason.'

Kane shrugged. 'So what? I've got no allegiance to the Thirteen Worlds. This is a free port, outside any jurisdiction. The High King's writ doesn't hold here, and you know it. Hell, you started it.' He said something to Locke in a language Vivienne couldn't quite make out, and the woman left the room. 'But for Yuri's killer, I'll help. Just let me have the name and I'll send my men to get him. Anything to get you off my station.'

'It's not that simple.'

'Well fancy that. I had a feeling it wouldn't be. Not with you involved. Never could do anything the easy way, could you? Always have to grandstand and make some bloody pantomime routine out of everything, don't you?' He turned his cyclopean gaze onto Vivienne. 'Tell me, is he still a prancing drama queen when things don't quite go his way?'

Vivienne spluttered and tried hard not to laugh at Kastchei's steely-eyed glare. 'Not so's you'd notice,' she managed to get out eventually, rather enjoying his discomfort. Although, she reflected, Kane was running perilously close to the edge in provoking him. Judging from the set of his shoulders, she judged the explosion wasn't too far off, and decided to try to defuse the situation a little. She tried the reasonable tack.

'The man we need to find is Kai ap Eachtar. We had word that he was here, with the capital ship Prydwen. I don't think I need to point out that this is a delicate situation, politically? We would like your assistance.'

'You need it, you mean, babe.' Kane gave her a raking appraisal, but used to such scrutiny, she held her head high and refused to be intimidated. 'We're neutral – spats between different political factions are not my business. Ah, tea.'

A young man entered, followed by Locke with a dishevelled looking Devin in tow. Kane nodded to the servant, who placed the tray he was carrying on the table and left. Devin took his place on the other side of Kastchei, giving Vivienne a quizzical look. She mouthed "later" at him. Shaking his head, the bard turned his attention to their host.

Who reached for a surprisingly familiar style of teapot, and smiled. 'Shall I be mother?' he asked. 'After all, one should be civilised, even when one's company is not.'

Kastchei turned to Vivienne. 'I take it back,' he said, under his breath but loudly enough to be overheard. 'I will kill him.'

Locke's pistol was pointed at him within a fraction of a heartbeat. Vivienne hadn't even seen the woman move.

'You try,' Locke told him, 'And you die. It's that simple. And don't try to bluff your way out by claiming that you're immortal – I've seen the reports. Whatever you were before, you're vulnerable now. Or as vulnerable as any of your kind. And if I shoot you with this, it won't grow back.' She shifted her aim a little lower.

'This isn't very productive,' Devin interjected smoothly. 'My lord –' he began, addressing Kane.

'Sit down, boy,' Kane ordered. 'I ain't no lord. There's only one of us in this room ever went in for fancy titles. Locke – put the gun away, kiddo.'

Locke backed down, but kept her gaze fixed firmly on Kastchei, who smiled toothily as though nothing had happened, and helped himself from the table. Vivienne let out a breath she hadn't even realised she was holding. Kane handed her a cup of steaming tea.

'Kai's here on business, same as anyone else,' Kane continued, as though nothing had happened. He offered a cup to Devin, who refused with an angry shake of his head. Kane shrugged and drank it himself. 'Point is, that puts me under an obligation to see nothing happens to him. Regardless of what he's done.'

'But…' Vivienne began. Kane raised his hand.

'Let me finish, kitten. There are rules on the 'Dance. Ask your boyfriend there – he put most of 'em in place, after all. You break 'em, you'll pay the price, same as anyone else. Play nice, and I might just turn a blind eye.' He grinned. 'So to speak.'

Vivienne noticed Locke shuffle slightly, and a sharp sideways glance at her boss was quickly disguised as a stretch.

'Whatever he's here for,' Vivienne said quietly, 'it can't bode well for your neutrality in the long term, Kane. Or for business. Haven't you heard there's a war coming?'

'Listen kitten - there's always something brewing. But I don't get involved with politics -'

Kastchei made a strangled noise that it took Vivienne a moment to recognise as a laugh. Kane scowled, but Kastchei's only response was a raised eyebrow.

Kane sighed and went on. "I don't get involved with politics anymore.' He nodded at Kastchei, who studiously ignored him. 'Unlike this juvenile delinquent here, who never seems to learn that it's more trouble than it's worth. Last time he decided to get involved sixteen planets and over eight billion people were burned to ash by the Sunkiller. Kit, you bring death and destruction with you even when you're on the side of the angels – compared to that, I'll take a rebel Lord Commander and half the fleet any day.'

He stood up. 'I'll have your baggage transferred to quarters on level six. It's quiet, prestigious, and the only person you'll have to worry about listening in is me. The devil ya know, an 'all.' He offered his hand to Vivienne, who took it warily. He smiled – not a reassuring sight, the way the old scar twisted across his cheek when he did. But his handshake – his hand completely buried hers – was firm but gentle. 'If your boy there's ever open to reason on the subject, ask him if he can think of any other way Morgaine could have been stopped from destroying world after world just to get to him. Then ask him what he'd have done in the same circumstances.'

'The end always justifies the means, is that still your mantra, Kane?' Kastchei asked, standing up. Even at his full height, Kane towered over him by a good six inches, and must have massed at least a third more. The scene reminded Vivienne of a cat standing up to a mastiff.

'Do you still keep that statue behind your desk?' Kastchei asked, innocently. 'Ah. I take it that tight-lipped stare means "yes". You half-blind old masochist – didn't anyone ever teach you that picking at scabs means the wounds never heal?'

Kane stared down at him scornfully. 'Is that the best you can do?'

A moment later he reeled backwards, blood dripping from his nose. Kastchei rubbed his knuckles

'No, but it'll do on account.'

'Worst case of testosterone poisoning I've seen in years,' Vivienne muttered witheringly.

Locke sniggered. Kane straightened, touched a hand to his bleeding nose, and just smiled grimly at Kastchei.

'You still hit like a girl,' he said.

'Oi!' Vivienne let her indignation show a little. Kastchei just ignored him.

'Present company excluded, of course. Lady Vivienne, Master Devin, Lord Kastchei – dinner in my quarters at third cycle's end. Assuming of course you care to accept?'

'Delighted,' Devin replied, before the other two could reply, in what sounded like a desperate attempt to defuse the situation. 'If someone could show us to our quarters…?'

Kane turned. 'Locke?'

She walked over to a small round table in a corner, and passed her hand over the golden orb that sat on it resting on a silver, skeletal hand. 'Taran – step in here, would you?'

A young blond man appeared in the doorway and bowed. 'If you'll follow me?'

Their assigned quarters were a level down from Kane's, but equally well appointed. Cafall was laid out on a rug in the first, still out cold. Kastchei checked the hound over as Devin, un-noticed, took his leave.

'He'll be fine.' He patted the hound on the flank and stood up, taking in the room. 'Mercifully tasteful, thankfully.'

'So glad you like it,' Vivienne said brightly. 'Yours is next door, I believe?' she pointed to a connecting door, which stood ajar, opening onto an identical chamber, where she could just make out Kastchei's bags on the bed. 'Was all that posturing really necessary?' She sat down heavily on the edge of the bed, and waited. He leaned against the wall, and said nothing. 'Well?' she pressed.

'You're supposed to be observant,' he said eventually. 'You tell me.'

'I'm not too sure. I was surprised he didn't kill you when you hit him. Or rather, order Locke to do it.'

'Conclusion?'

'He wants something from you.' She eyed him speculatively. 'So what next?'

He pushed himself off the wall. 'Dinner, I think. Full dress uniform for you, obviously.'

'Obviously.' She reached for her bags and began fishing for her court livery – her somewhat unofficial status at court did have its downside on occasion, she thought glumly, staring at the three-quarter length russet waistcoat that tended to make her feel like a principal boy. 'And after that?'

He posed in the doorway of the connecting room. 'What did you have in mind?'

She grinned, and held up a dark grey jumpsuit. 'A little sortie into our host's quarters and a rummage through his files? Unless you had anything else in mind?'

'I knew there was a reason I liked you,' he quipped.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eight

"You can program and build systems to resist most attacks; but no system alone can combat what the Russians call "Maskirovka" – the devastating blow hidden behind a calculated façade of mundanity"

Computer Weekly

Kane finally emerged from the bathroom, and stripped off the damp, bloodstained shirt. The bleeding had stopped, finally. Without comment, Locke handed him a clean shirt.

'Was all that really necessary?' she asked. She couldn't see his face as he half-grunted a reply, the shirt over his head.

'You read the reports.' He pulled the shirt down, and tucked it into his waistband. His eyepatch had got tangled up in the laces, and he pulled it free, throwing it onto the bed. 'Kastchei Bes-mertny, Lord of the Summer Country, Master – ' here he paused, smiling slightly as if at a private joke – 'of the Wild Hunt of Breceliande. And damn the man, I didn't know he could hit that hard.' He pulled a black velvet waistcoat on over the shirt and fastened it, leaving it open from neck to waist to contrast with the white cravat that tumbled over the front of the light blue shirt. Over white breeches and black boots, the effect was quite striking - at least, below the neck: The dashing piratical look was somewhat spoilt by the heavy scarring and the unflattering crewcut. He rummaged in a drawer for a new eyepatch. 'I wish I'd planned this, but all in all, it could work out rather well.'

'I don't understand,' Locke said, confused. 'Landside titles? What do they have to do with this?'

'Aren't you getting changed?' he asked pointedly. With an irritated shake of the head, she stripped off and headed for his bathroom. From the shower, she heard him continue, over the falling water: 'The Wild Hunt, kiddo. Once upon a time, my people were faced with a war – and being the kind of paranoid, amoral, arrogant, morally bankrupt bastards that they were, they thought that using their renegades and undesirables as shock troops was a good idea. They plundered their prison planets, and offered an amnesty to the renegades still running loose in the big ole universe. When the hapless bastards - and no, I wasn't stupid enough to fall for it – how I got there is a long story darlin', before you ask - strolled back home hoping for a warm welcome, they were put on ice and shipped out to the experimental facilities. When one faction split and fled the war, the process carried one of the prison planets with them. And in their wisdom, they decided that in case any of their dangerous cargo of renegades, criminals and experimental subjects escaped, they needed something to hunt them down.

'Now obviously, if you've fragged around with someone's very volatile time-sensitive biodata the way they did with most of the poor bastards still in deep freeze back on Breceliande, then tracking 'em down and subduing 'em ain't a matter for the faint hearted. It's not exactly easy either – some of those experiments involved blending our biodata with that of the timeships.'

'So?'

'So they had abilities that allowed them some limited means of playing around with time and space and all the bits in between. Hell, some weren't even quite "real" any more. They created the Hunt to track 'em down and bring 'em back – alive or dead. The hounds are cybrids – bio-engineered from ordinary animal biodata and blended with timeship protocols in the cauldrons. Then they added an extra component – something capable of carrying a man with the hunt. A Cybrorse. Only that got a lot more of the timeship – or what you'd call "dragon" – biodata. Once you give it a "master", or pilot, you got yourself what amounts to a primitive gestalt-form timeship, of sorts. Or you would if time-travel was possible here, which it ain't. That's the hunt kiddo – a living, breathing weapon designed to hunt down the type of creature that's loose on my station.'

'But he doesn't have the hunt with him,' Locke pointed out, emerging from the shower dripping wet. Kane activated the drying field for her. 'Thanks.'

'Doesn't have to. After this long as Master of the Hunt, he'll have a nose for it. And there's one of the hounds with him.'

'And that's your plan?'

'Can you think of a better one?'

'No.' She looked around. 'I did leave something in your closet worth wearing tonight, didn't I?' He handed her a golden trouser suit in a shimmering fabric. 'Wow. This isn't mine.'

He shrugged. 'It's your size.'

'He'll never do it. Not for you.'

'Doesn't have to. We'll just… steer him away from it. Subtly.'

'You don't do subtle.'

'I know. Pity, that. He'll fall over it very quickly. But Kastchei has one incorruptible vice that's been a constant his whole life, and it makes him so predictable. Even if he suspects I'm trying to reel him in, he'll bite. He can't help it. His curiosity – his need to follow through once he's got the scent of a mystery – will drive him to it.'

'You might want to "mwahaha" on the end of that,' Locke told him. 'Can you get this top button for me?'

He obliged. 'You think it's a little convoluted?'

'I think you're insane. He's a killer – your own report on him makes no bones about that. What if he turns on us?'

'Let me worry about that.'

His tone wasn't quite as matter-of –fact as usual, and Locke paused in the act of pulling on her boots. 'You're not quite as cocky about all this as you'd like me to think you are. What's the catch?'

He handed her a torc. 'The catch? The last time I saw him he was a howling madman who'd spent years being tortured to the point of death and beyond. There was nothing left – nothing recognisable – once Morgaine finished with him, kiddo.

'He was broken, Regan. Broken – body and soul. I'd have put good money on it that whatever came back from that, it wouldn't have been what stood before me today. Not given what he was to start with.'

The rare use of her given name was a measure of his concern. 'I read the file. From psychopath to psychotic – and a few places I've never even heard of. Didn't sound like the kind of man who'd lead a rebellion against an evil tyranny...'

'Wanting the throne for himself is a good enough motive – and how much blood was spilt during that campaign? Besides, it's easy to play at being a hero when you're practically indestructible.'

'Point. Altruism not an issue then?'

'Not noticeably, although he can do a passable imitation.' Kane shook his head. 'Maybe. I never bought his story about wanting to put things to rights, although Yuri did. Doesn't make an awful lot of difference to those who died.'

'So what's his angle this time?'

Kane stared past her, in the direction of the quest quarters. 'I have no idea. I just hope we can get him off the station before we get caught up in it.'

'After we use him to put a stop to D'Alembert's little game?'

'Goes without saying, kiddo. Come on, time to sparkle. Dinner could be interesting.'

The message left on the vates orb of the Prydwen had been quite explicit, as well as unexpected. Kai cursed when he saw the encryption level, and entered the correct key. Unscrambled, a darkened face appeared in the orb.

'Yes?'

'Don't you ever check your messages?' the hooded figure asked. It sighed. 'Never mind.'

'You weren't supposed to contact me,' Kai snarled. He slammed his fist down on the table, and the orb jumped in its holder, making the image stutter. 'I thought we'd agreed…'

'Plans change,' the hooded man said coldly. 'There's something you need to know.'

Kai sat down heavily. 'This had better be good.'

'Good, hardly. You've got company, my Lord. Kastchei Bes-Mertny and Vivienne of Avallion are on board the Dance. Looking for you, as it happens.'

'Kastchei? Here?' Kai swore under his breath. 'So much for Calaitin's assurances that he wouldn't get involved.'

'Circumstances change,' said the dark man. 'But this does change our plans slightly. Do you want me to deal with him?'

Kai shook his head. 'No. The contingency we set in motion in case of discovery will do as well for him as for any other. And better than that – I've got an ace to play if he gets too close. Are you on the station?'

'For my sins, yes.'

'Don't risk your cover, we might still need you.' A thought struck him. 'If Vivienne's here, where's Taliesin?'

'Gone to Orcadia, with Marius. That much of the plan worked, at least.' There was a hesitant note in the speaker's voice.

'Getting cold feet?'

'I didn't expect him to take Marco. I was supposed to go with him, remember?'

'Is this a problem?' Kai asked coldly. There was no reply. 'I asked you a question – remember your place, Master Bard.'

'No. It's not a problem,' the hooded man replied quietly.

'Remember that,' Kai snapped. 'Remember who owns you, songbird. I'll contact you if I need you.' He severed the connection with a wave of his hand, and sat back in his chair, hands steepled in front of his face, resting his chin on the tips of his fingers.

In his quarters, Devin slid the tiny orb back into the concealed compartment in the body of his guitar, and stared helplessly at the instrument. He replaced it carefully in its case, and walked over to look in the mirror on the far side of the room. The face looking back at him was his own – every curve, every line, every scar. Shoulder length black hair, curling slightly in the slight humidity of the station. Blue eyes, a chin perhaps a little too pointed hidden by a neatly trimmed beard. Everything as it should be.

Abruptly, he stripped off his coat and shirt, and stood looking at his bare chest. His hand strayed of its own accord to the place where his left-hand heart beat. The skin was smooth, unblemished. He looked up into the eyes of his reflection.

'I'm not likely to forget, my lord.'

 

'So, we're in the vault – finally - and there's one door left to get through. Now, I figure we can just blast the damn thing open, and have done with it, but your boy here thinks otherwise. He wants to do it sneaky-like, and so he grabs one of the guards and does his thing: "you will obey me, look into my eyes and tell me how to get it open". Something like that. Now at this point, we've got past all the wards, the security's been blown wide open, all we need to do is get the door open and we're home free, with enough money to fund the damn rebellion for the next decade. Except next thing I know, we're picking pieces of this guy out of our hair…'

Kane leaned over the table, laughing. He jabbed his fork in Kastchei's direction. 'Laughing boy there didn't realise they'd primed the guards against being tampered with…' he tapped his head. 'Turns out, if we'd blown the bloody doors off like I wanted, we'd have been home free. Instead, Mr "I'm too clever for my own britches over there" gets two of us killed blasting a way out, and we're on the run for the next two years from the bloody syndics that owned the bank.'

'It wasn't quite like that,' Kastchei replied through slightly gritted teeth.

Kane grinned. 'Who's telling this?'

'Someone who should learn when to keep his mouth shut,' Kastchei snapped.

Kane raised the eyebrow above his good eye and smirked at Vivienne. 'Touchy, ain't he?'

'Only when baited,' she replied. 'Can't you two just play nicely?'

Kane poured her another glass of wine. 'Now where would be the fun in that?'

Devin, a little left out at the end of the table, stood up. 'If you'll excuse me?'

Kane waved him away. Vivienne gave the bard a woeful smile, and he just shook his head slightly. Whatever was eating him, she thought, was starting to erode his normally ebullient nature, as well as affect his judgement. Noting the sharp look Kastchei gave him, he'd seen it as well.

Vivienne stood up. 'Gentlemen – if you'll excuse me for a moment?' She gave Locke a questioning girl-to-girl look.

'I'll go with you,' Locke said, standing. 'I'm sure we can leave them alone for a bit without minders.'

With the women gone, Kane pushed back his chair, and reached for a bottle on top of a nearby cupboard. 'I'm not sure I shouldn't send someone after them to listen in,' he said, pouring a generous measure into a glass. 'Does anyone know why they always have to go in there mob-handed? You have to wonder what they're so afraid of. And what they talk about.' He handed a glass to Kastchei, and downed another one himself in one swallow. Kastchei sniffed the glass warily and set it down. 'Too strong for you?'

Kastchei took a sip and gagged. 'Do you drink this as penance?'

Kane grinned. 'You know me so well. Refill?'

'I'll pass. I've not been that sinful of late.'

Kane laughed. 'I find that hard to believe.'

Kastchei answered with a bleak smile. 'What's the angle, Kane? Playing the genial host isn't usually your style.'

'Anymore than playing the hero is yours?'

Kastchei raised the glass and saluted him. 'Point. I do hope you've been looking after my station for me.'

'Your station?' Kane raised his eyebrow. 'I think you'll find possession is nine-tenths of the law, Kastchei. Besides, you just converted it, as I recall.'

Kastchei put the glass down, its contents untouched. 'Well if Merlin was going to just leave it lying around, I wasn't going to argue. There was a certain satisfaction to be gained by subverting something he'd worked so hard to create.'

'Does that explain the girl?' Kane asked slyly. Kastchei didn't answer. 'She's not your type, otherwise – far too petite and innocent. And not at all the kind of power-hungry, amoral rip-your-balls-out by the bleeding roots bitch you usually hang around with. Where did you find her?'

'In a snowdrift.'

The blank tone was enough to let Kane know he'd get nothing further out of him on the subject. He changed it.

'Can you still use that thing?' he asked, waving the empty glass in his hand at Kastchei's sword, propped up against the wall. Kastchei shrugged.

'Maybe. Care to test it sometime?'

'Anytime. I tend to take my practice sessions in the pits in the early morning. Good sparring partners are hard to find, but I'll give you a handicap if you want a bout.'

'I'll take you as I find you,' Kastchei said coldly. The women re-entered the room, and he drained the glass in one gulp, and stood up. 'If you'll excuse me, it's been a long day?'

'So much to do, so little time to be furtive,' Kane quipped. 'Try not to outsmart yourself, Kit – I owed you one life for pulling my ass out of the deep-freeze, but you've called in all your markers now. I'll stay out of your way if you keep this low profile, but that's all. I have to do business in this region of space after you've gone, after all.'

'Kane, you have my word that when I'm done, your reputation will be the very least of your worries,' Kastchei replied over his shoulder as he left.

In the corridor Vivienne trotted to keep up with his longer stride. 'What was all that about?'

'Macho posturing, what else?' he replied lightly, but she could have sworn his teeth were grinding. 'What did you two find to talk about?' he asked in return.

Vivienne shrugged. 'Oh, the usual. Girl talk.' At his interrogative sideways look, she grinned. 'Men, of course – what else?'

 

Their orders had been specific, and finding the right subject had been easy enough. Terrified, almost frozen with fear, the little girl lay huddled against the wall, staring watchfully at her captors, almost radiating her terror. All that remained were the wards, and D'Alembert's men watched uneasily as Eliavres glided around the chosen ground. Hardened as they were, the sorcerer had an evil reputation on the station. Rumour had it that if you crossed D'Alembert, it was Eliavres you ended up dealing with, and the sorcerer was always in need of fresh material for his biotechnomantic experiments.

The area chosen was a small nexus of corridors opening onto a circular plaza in the lower reaches of the Starstone. A little close to Kane's base of operations, but when the captain had pointed that out, D'Alembert had simply laughed. The captain squared his shoulders as the sorcerer approached, and shrugged mentally. What the hell – if the syndics wanted to get a little antsy, it just meant more work, and a chance for a little overtime.

The child at his feet whimpered, and he growled at her, forcing her even further into her curled up terror. Whatever D'Alembert and Eliavres had in mind for her, he hoped he wouldn't be expected to hang around. He couldn't stand the sound of crying, it just got on his nerves.

'The wards are set, Captain,' Eliavres said silkily. 'You and your men may withdraw to a safe position. He knelt down at the side of the little girl – no more than eight or nine, and smiled reassuringly at her. 'You can go,' he told her.

She looked up at him, wide-eyed, uncomprehending, and the captain saw the mage smile warmly, and hold out his hand. 'Go on, child,' he heard the mage say softly. Run.

The command was enough: the little girl got to her feet and ran unsteadily towards the concourse, sobbing with relief. But far from home, alone, and scared, she could only wander helplessly through the thoroughfare, in a place where no-one wanted to get involved. Other peoples' lost children had no place down here, and her tearful pleas to passersby were ignored. Eliavres, watching from the sidelines, had to intervene when an opportunistic pimp knelt by the child, false sympathy on his face, and the child watched as the only person who'd paid her any attention got to his feet and wandered off looking dazed, ignoring her cries.

Keeping out of sight, warded against sight, sound and mind, the mage watched, and waited and followed. If D'Alembert's information was right, the creature would soon strike.

 

 

 

Chapter Nine

 

He is a liar. I just don't know what the lie is yet.

CSI: Miami

'I'll take the lock, you watch the corridor,' Kastchei ordered. He stripped off his gloves and examined the pad at the side of the door.

'And do what if someone comes along? Run them through?' Vivienne tucked her knife more securely into her knee length boot. 'I thought we were going with "low impact"?'

'Just let me know,' he sighed, running his fingers over the side of the panel, feeling under the edge of the decorative filigree trim. 'If you're feeling squeamish, I'll deal with it.'

'Or maybe I'll deal with it myself,' she muttered, keeping her eyes on the empty corridor. She wouldn't put it past him to break a neck or two just to make a point.

Getting past security hadn't been as difficult as she'd feared – instead of sneaking around the corridors, Kastchei had used a small service tunnel that bypassed most of the byways between their quarters and Kane's – although she didn't think she'd get the smell out of her hair anytime soon.

She sniffed again, surreptitiously, and it earned her a sharp rebuke from Kastchei.

'It's hardly noticeable. Stop complaining.'

She glanced back over her shoulder, and saw that he had the panel off the wall, and was fiddling carefully with the glowing components inside. 'Can't you move it along a bit? We're sitting ducks out here.'

'Patience is a virtue,' he replied through clenched teeth, concentrating. 'One slip and this whole corridor could be vaporised. Kane's a tricky bastard – I don't want to trip any nasty surprises.'

'Tricky enough to blow his own office into smithereens?' Vivienne asked cheekily.

It earned her a withering look. 'Are you going to let me get on with this or not?'

She grinned and kept watch on the corridor. Whether by luck, or Kane's assumption that no-one would get this far undetected, they weren't disturbed.

The door to the chambers slid open, and Kastchei regarded the opening warily.

'Aren't we going in?' Vivienne hissed. She took a step towards the door, and he raised a hand.

'Wait,' he ordered. She stood stock still. He lowered his hand, and counted slowly under his breath. When he reached twelve there was a very slight buzz, almost undetectable unless she'd been listening.

'Now we can go in,' he told her. He reached round the door, feeling for the lightswitch, she assumed, then paused and gave her a questioning look. 'What do you think – would he have booby-trapped the light?'

She grinned back. 'Would you?'

He drew back his hand. 'Probably. So the question becomes one of bluff – or double bluff?'

'If you try to outsmart him, you'll be here all night,' she quipped. She held out a small hand-glow. 'Let's not risk it.' She ducked under his arm and into the room before he could protest, although she could hear him grumbling behind her.

She blinked furiously to remove the after-image as he switched the lights on.

'Bluff,' he said smugly, moving gracefully past her to the table. She stuck her tongue out at him.

'One day, you're going to outsmart yourself, you do know that?' she retorted, pocketing the glow. 'So, what are we looking for?' She eyed the small wooden desk dubiously – the surface devoid of anything remotely useful: no reports, no crysfile. Just a crystal vates orb, and a bronze head on a rectangular plinth. The shelves behind it were also bare, containing on a few small objects that she couldn't identify, and a foot high statue that looked familiar. Whilst Kastchei examined the desk, she took a closer look.

'Isn't that Kali?' she asked.

'Hmm?'

'Kali. Indian death-cult goddess, consort of Shiva, all round bitch-queen of the pantheon?'

'Oh. That. It's something of a joke.'

She peered at the statue, multi-armed, tongue hanging out in a grotesesque leer, and balanced on the fallen body of Shiva. 'The Lord of the Dance brought low by his consort. Funny sort of joke.' She turned her attention back to Kastchei. 'Any luck?'

'Nothing. No secret compartments, no hidden documents, nothing.'

She ran her fingers over the orb. 'There's this…'

'It's not connected to anything – can you see anything resembling an interface in…' He trailed off. 'Or maybe there is,' he said softly. He leaned over the desk and looked hard at the bronze head. The face of a young man, his eyes closed in reverie or sleep, a half-smile hovering around the corners of the mouth. 'It pays to think laterally, sometimes.'

'That?' Vivienne whispered. 'You're joking.'

'Hopefully not.' He ran his fingers over the plinth. 'A Brazen Head does rather fit the aesthetic of this world, after all.'

'Can you figure out how to use it?'

'If you shut up and let me get on with it, yes.'

She grinned, and moved away. He'd shut the door behind them, so figuring they'd have some warning if anyone approached, she examined the room more closely. Not a lengthy task, as it held surprisingly little.

'This guy is even tidier than you are,' she quipped. 'And that's saying something.'

'From someone who still lives out of her hand luggage?' Kastchei asked. 'Ah!'

She trotted back to his side, leaning over the back of the chair to get a closer look, and almost jumped out of her skin when the head's eyes opened.

'Bloody hell.' She reached out a hand to touch it, only for it to be slapped away gently but firmly.

'Don't touch. Now, file access.' The last two words were spoken in a perfect imitation of Kane's voice.

'How may I be of service?' the head asked, the lips moving in perfect synchronisation with the words.

'Recently accessed files – station security, ship arrivals – specifically regarding the names "Prydwen" "Kaiwyn ap Eachtar" "Mordred". Also any anomalous information requests made over the last two weeks.'

'Working.'

The statue's eyes closed.

'This is too easy,' Vivienne muttered, unsettled.

Kastchei put his feet up on the desk, leaning back in the chair with his hands laced behind his head. 'I know. I don't know whether to be grateful or insulted.'

A soft chime announced the completion of the brazen head's task. The eyes opened again. Kastchei took his feet off the desk and leaned forwards. 'Report,' he ordered, again using Kane's rough tones.

'Authorisation code required,' the head stated. Kastchei sat back with a muttered oath. Vivienne perched on the edge of the desk.

'Well?'

'Let me think,' he snapped. 'He's made it easy so far. This is just his idea of a joke.' He stared around the room as though looking for inspiration. Swivelling round in the chair his gaze lighted on the statue of Kali and he grinned.

'I wonder just how predictable he's made this?' he asked out loud. Turning back, he fiddled with the small panel at the base of the statue. 'And how out of practice I am at this,' he added. 'Aha. That should do it.'

The Vates-glass cleared, and data began to roll around the curved surface, in the cursive letters of Kastchei's homeworld. Kastchei stared intently into the orb.

'We've got no way of recording that,' Vivienne pointed out. Without taking his eyes off the data, Kastchei tapped his temple.

'Eidetic memory. Trust me.'

The data flow stopped, and the glass clouded again. Kastchei sat back in the chair with a muttered obscenity.

'Problem?' Vivienne asked. Kastchei stood up.

'Later. First we get back to our quarters.'

Almost idly, he reached out a hand and picked up the statue of Kali, forcing the metal to flow, and bent it into a new pose, leaning over its fallen foe. He stroked one of the arms of the statue – the one that held a small hand sickle. Handling the metal as though it were putty, his fingers moulded the pose so that the curve of the blade now rested under the statue's head, frozen, when he was finished, in the act of decapitation. Without another word he headed for the door, leaving Vivienne to trail behind him.

 

Eliavres felt the change as a prickling of the hairs on the back of his neck, and a warm trickle of heat down his spine. Even with his back against the thick rock walls of the asteroid, his shoulder blades twitched. A quick sweep of the warded area however showed nothing amiss – all his wards were green, and the bait still wandered within them, restrained by his coercion from moving out of the killing zone.

He relaxed, putting it down to nerves. After all, it had been a couple of hours.

The wards flared red, and something moved on the edge of his perception. Not so much "seen" as felt. A pressure, a feeling of threat. The closer he tried to concentrate on it, the stronger the sensation became.

Yet nothing approached the child, huddled in a corner of the plaza, crying quietly.

Eliavres extended his senses carefully, warding his mind against attack. The creature was nearby, he could almost see it. A fluttering grey shape, behind…

Behind the plaza, where he'd left the captain and his men.

As though his realisation was a signal, the screaming began. Men's screams, harsh, deep and cut abruptly short. The plaza's occupants milled around in confusion, prey animals sensing a wolf amongst them. Cursing, Eliavres had to force his way through the panicking crowd, his mental coercion tearing one woman's mind apart in his haste to reach the men.

Too late. The three bodies lay in the side corridor, slumped and broken. Eliavres knelt at the captain's side, and turned the body over. The face was fixed in an expression of absolute terror, the lips drawn back from the teeth, eyes bulging out of their sockets.

'You'll have to do better than this.'

Eliavres felt his blood run cold, hearing the voice, which sounded distant, yet came from no particular direction. The tones were thin and sharp, but strangely compelling.

'We could at least talk,' he began. But the only listeners were the crowd who'd begun to gather. Eliavres stood up and brushed his coat down, and pushed his way out of the crush. D'Alembert would not appreciate this failure, he knew.

The little girl stood alone in the centre of the plaza, lost and oblivious to the general hubbub. Eliavres smiled, and called her over. Unable to resist his allure, and perhaps also recognising him, she ran over and he picked her up.

'Ah well,' he muttered, striding away from the scene, and smiling at her as she put her arms around his neck, in childish trust. 'Waste not, want not.'

 

Kane leaned back on the cushions and let Locke rest her head on his shoulder. Her long hair covered them both, a silken, shimmering silvery sheet tinged with red and gold from the flickering candlelight that lit the room.

'Remind me to booby-trap the lightswitch next time. Excellent suggestion. Wish I'd thought of it. How much of the fleet is within recall range of the 'Dance?' he asked lazily.

'Three ships,' she replied promptly. 'The Erebus, the Valour and the Abbadon. Why? You don't think we'll need them do you?'

'With Kastchei and Kai around? I'd be happier with the full fleet. Recall 'em, Locke. All speed – but quietly. When they get here put Taran on the Erebus. Brandt's been after retiring - a stint as first officer will give the boy a taste.'

She looked up at him. 'Is he up to it?'

'He should be. Don't worry, Locke – he's got talent, and he's ready for a bit more action. It's the only ship I can put him on anyway - the Valour doesn't need a new officer, and I like Taran too much to inflict Alec and Abbadon on him. Anyway – it shouldn't come down to a stand-up fight.'

'It'd better not,' she said sourly. 'Not even the Abbadon could stand up to the Prydwen.'

'Prydwen's old, and well past her prime,' he said dismissively.

'Her hellbore mass drivers aren't,' Locke pointed out. 'And Korday's a grade one nutter.'

'Alex may be a bit flaky, but he does know his business. Besides, if it comes down to it, we've got that covered. Our little ace in the hole, remember?'

She shifted around until she was lying on her front, looking up at him, her chin resting on one hand. 'I thought you weren't going to bring her online until next year at least? You said…'

'I know what I said, but I'm thinking we could try waking her a little early.' He ran his hand along the smooth curve of her side, and she took the cue to move closer, lying against him with her back pressed to his chest whilst he wrapped his arms around her. 'Why is it kiddo, that you don't mind spending your nights with a broken-down old wreck like me?' he asked playfully.

She nestled a little closer, her eyes closed. 'Because you pay me to?' She yawned.

He ran his fingers through the silken expanse of her hair, which smelt faintly of jasmine. 'Then what does that make you?'

'Someone who doesn't have to pay to get laid?'

'Just for that, don't expect a tip.'

'About the other matter?' she prompted, hiding a grin. 'It's risky.'

'I know.'

'Possibly stupid.'

'Could be.'

'You might just over-reach yourself on this one.'

'Yep.'

'And the syndics will go ballistic.'

'Counting on it.'

She wriggled in his arms until she was facing him. 'You can't be serious?'

'Do I look like I'm joking?' he asked. 'It ain't just Simon who's got his eyes on that spot between my shoulder blades, kiddo. He's just the only one who's up front about it.' He kissed the tip of her nose. 'I figure it's about time I shook things loose around here. If you want out…'

She placed her finger on his lips. 'No. I gave my word a long time ago, remember? I'm in this as deep as you are. And stop calling me "kiddo". I'm not that young anymore.'

'Compared to me, kiddo, everyone's a babe in arms round here.'

'Ain't that the truth,' she said, mimicking his accent. 'But I've known you for longer than anyone else around here,' she continued, in her usual, strident tones. 'I've taken bullets, blasts, cuts, bruises and falling infrastructure for you - not to mention no end of crap over the years. So if there's anything you're not telling me, I suggest you rethink that right now.'

'Regan, there's a lot about this even I don't understand yet.'

'So, talk to me,' she demanded. 'I'm not a child anymore, Kane – I might not be over a thousand years old – hell, so I'm not even pure-blood dragon-born – but why won't you trust me enough to tell me what you at least suspect? Like what happened the other night, for a start?'

He looked down at, surprisingly tenderly. 'Kiddo, I can't explain it because you didn't feel it. You were born here, in this universe – you're not time sensitive. You couldn't possibly be, because this universe isn't anchored –only those bound to one of the dragons, or born outside this world stand a chance of feeling it, let alone understanding it.'

At her blank look, he sighed. 'It's complicated. But I think someone tried to damage the world tree. Somewhere – somewhen.'

'Does this have anything to do with our current problem?'

He tightened his arms around her slightly. 'I have no idea. But the reports that came in from our agents suggest that something happened on Breceliande a year or so ago – Elphin's people have been going frantic looking for Mordred and a druid called Calaitin.'

'The gestalt clone who destroyed Valencia a few years back during the interregnum?'

'Got it in one. I need more information, but there's something weird going on there, and Kastchei's the key. He wants Kai's head on a platter, and I'll let him have it – but in the meantime, I also want to find out what happened on that damn planet that's got the High King and his people so nervy. That report you handed to me suggested that Kastchei was up to his neck in it – whatever "it" was. Do you think it's a coincidence that Kai shows up here with a Breceliande native and a parcel of stasis capsules a few months down the line?'

'You always told me never to believe in coincidence,' Locke said softly.

'Since when do you listen to me?' he asked.

'Oh, I listen,' she purred. 'I just know when you're full of shit.'

He grinned. 'Like that's a difficult task. Now – are you going to stop second-guessing me and follow where I lead on this?'

A bleeping from the teleos on top of the pile of Locke's clothes forestalled any reply she might have made. She slithered away from Kane and grabbed the device.

'Locke.' She snapped into the device.

'Intruder reported in the guest quarters,' Taran's voice came back over the channel. 'Want me to deal?'

'We'll go,' Kane replied shortly, springing to his feet. He threw his shirt at Locke and grabbed his swords, throwing one to her. 'Move.'

 

 

Chapter Ten

What about the almighty pursuit of the truth? You kinda chucked that awful fast.

Sheriff Buck - American Gothic

Once back in their quarters Vivienne stripped off the jumpsuit, and headed for the shower. Cafall padded over to sniff the offending article and jumped back sneezing.

'I told you,' she called out to Kastchei. His grunt was muffled by his shirt, being pulled over his head.

'My apologies. It didn't used to run past the sewage processor. After a rueful glance at the shirt, he stuffed it, and her coveralls, into the waste disposal unit in her room.

She was letting the hot water wash over her when she felt a cool draught of air on her wet back, and heard the slick rasp of the door opening.

'Oi!' Her indignant flapping didn't faze him in the slightest.

'Water's a scarce commodity on the station,' he told her. 'And since when did you have to be that prudish with me?'

'I'd love to know if you'd use that line if it was Dev you were sharing with,' she retorted.

'Of course I wouldn't.' He squeezed past her, and stood under the jet. 'We've got a bigger problem than we thought,' he whispered into her ear. 'Kai's not alone – Alia's with him, wearing Marya's body.'

In the confines of the cubicle, she couldn't turn to take a look at his face. She could only feel the tension in the wiry muscle of his chest as he pressed against her.

'Are you going to let this complicate things?' she asked.

'It's already complicated,' he told her. 'Move over a little.'

She obliged. 'I don't see how it could get worse,' she muttered, remembering how he'd jeopardised her own rescue over eighteen months ago to kill his ex.

'They've got at least seven sleepers with them.'

'You're right. This got complicated.' She pivoted on one foot, until she was face to face with him. 'Does Kane know about Alia?'

'Probably not. Unless his spies are very well informed, and how likely is that? Only a handful of people on Skazki know the truth. But it gets worse -one of the sleepers was awakened upon arrival. The others were transported to a facility owned by a Simon D'Alembert.'

'He owns the capital vats on the station – first came to our notice a couple of years ago. Aislinn's none too fond of him, for obvious reasons,' Vivienne filled in. 'Tal's people also heard rumours that he's given sanctuary to one of the renegade sorcerers who escaped the net when Elphin took the throne. Quite a skilled cauldron-master, as I recall. One of Harbinger's lackeys.'

'It fits. Kane's guess, according to the notes I saw, is that they've used the sleepers to pay for a new capital class drakkhar, but one of them got loose, and it's killing wherever it goes.'

'So we have to stop it, right?'

He didn't answer.

'Kit?'

'It'll keep Kane off our backs whilst we put a stop to whatever Kai and Alia are doing,' he said bluntly. 'He's let us have this information to try to get me to clear this mess up for him – but I'm not here to clean up after that half-blind idiot just because he can't keep hold of his own people.'

'How bad is this creature?'

He turned off the shower. 'Bad enough. From the descriptions, it's an amadan.'

'Consider this a blank look,' she told him. She followed him through the drying field.

'Like the furor, they're altered beings; the Golden Book describes four of them. Unlike the furor, they aren't "real" as such anymore, more a kind of concept – only one that brings death wherever it touches. Stripped of their own reality, they aren't too stable – physically or mentally. Another failed experiment.' This last said with contemptuous bitterness. 'And they called me a monster.'

She took her robe from the bed where she'd laid it earlier, and busied herself by tying an elaborate knot in her belt whilst she watched him pace up and down, incongruously naked and totally uncaring.

'You're doing it again,' she said eventually. He stopped in mid stride and stared at her, slightly wild-eyed. 'Wriggling on the hook,' she told him. 'You know damn well we have to stop this thing. If it puts a dent in Kai's plans while we're at it, well and good. But this is what you do, remember? You're the Hunter.'

He laughed harshly. 'Still doing the Council's dirty work, millennia after they're gone to dust and after I first quit. The irony never lets up around here, does it?'

'You said yourself on more than one occasion lately that we're all being haunted by the past,' she replied tartly. 'What makes you think you're immune?'

'Wishful thinking,' he retorted. 'I should know better – ever since digging you out of that snowdrift, I've had nothing but trouble.'

Cafall suddenly snarled and stood facing the closed door to Kastchei's quarters, his hackles raised.

'Cafall? What is it, boy?' Vivienne started to approach the hound, but Kastchei's raised hand stopped her.

'Wait.'

The hound continued to snarl, teeth bared, and Kastchei raised a finger to his lips, as he tip-toed to the door.

'Sword?' he asked Vivienne, in a whisper. Very carefully she made her way over to her bed and reached down, pulling the scabbard slowly out from underneath, where she'd stowed it earlier. At Kastchei's signal, she threw it across, and it was caught deftly, and the sword drawn in one smooth movement. 'Desist,' he ordered the hound sharply, still in a whisper. Cafall dropped to the ground, still alert, watching the door, but the hound no longer growled.

'A little distraction?' he asked Vivienne. He raised his voice: 'Are you quite sure?'

Taking his cue, she grinned. 'Out. It's been a long day, and wrestling with you…'

'…what's the matter – too much for you?'

He laid his hand on the door.

'Go!' she said, laughing silently. 'Use your own bed for a change.'

He pulled the door open. 'Well, if you insist…'

The lights weren't on in his quarters, and the light extended only a little way into the room. She fell silent, listening, but heard nothing. She saw Kastchei take a firmer grip on his sword, keeping the weapon out of sight as he moved into the room. Then she heard the sound of running feet, and a cry in the dark. A grunt, and Cafall bounded into the room, leaping at an unseen foe. A crash, and sounds of a struggle, then a gurgling cry that died away.

'Lights,' said a voice from the darkness.

Locke's voice.

The blonde woman stood in the outer doorway of Kastchei's room, looking in on the carnage. She was wearing only a long pale blue shirt, which covered her to her mid-thigh, and her hair was unbound, falling in a sheer platinum sheet to her knees. She held a naked sword in her hands, surveying the scene with mild amusement. Kane stood in the doorway behind her, filling it from floor to lintel, and side to side, the mate of Locke's blade in his hand, and stripped to the waist.

Kastchei was on the floor, half-crouched ready to spring. At his feet, Cafall still worried at the throat of a man's body, until called off by the sorcerer.

As usual, Vivienne noted in passing, he seemed to have avoided getting any blood on himself.

'I see we arrived a little late,' Locke drawled.

'Nothing I can't handle,' Kastchei replied. Under Locke's admiring gaze, he reached for a towel. 'See anything in your size?' he asked evenly.

'Not from here,' she replied, and knelt at the side of the body, turning it over. 'Not one of ours.'

'Legion,' Kastchei grunted. He pulled on a shirt and breeches whilst Locke examined the body. Kane, Vivienne noticed, didn't enter the room, although he did drop his guard. 'Check the calluses – every single pressure point that you get in powered armour leaves a mark. Oh, and the rose and hydra tattoo is a dead giveaway.'

'I did say it was a mistake coming in so openly,' Vivienne muttered.

'Openness does seem to be the order of the day, babe,' Kane drawled, giving her an appreciative glance. With a squeak, she realised her robe was gaping, and pulled it across her protectively. 'Bloody hell, boy – you do know how to make a mess, don't you? Couldn't you just break the neck next time?'

There was a slowly growing pool of blood under and around the body, most of it coming from a large sword-cut that had cut through the torso across the left shoulder.

'See – ' Kane said to Locke, off-hand: 'I told you – leaves a trail of corpses behind him wherever he goes.' He turned to Kastchei. 'Looks like Kai made the first move,' he said lightly, almost as though relishing the idea. Vivienne cleared her throat.

'I doubt it was Kai – assassination isn't his style. If it was, he'd do it in person.' She looked at Kastchei. 'This has Alia's fingerprints on it.'

Kastchei didn't say anything. Kane gave her a questioning look, and folded his arms, waiting.

'What happened?– I heard-' Devin tried to peer over Kane's bulk, and failed. 'Excuse me?' Kane stepped aside to let him past, and the bard rushed in, dishevelled, his shirt untucked, breeches bunched up in his boot tops, and looking a little wild-eyed. 'Good grief.'

'A little welcome gift from an old flame,' Vivienne told him. She clucked to Cafall, who padded over, white fur matted with blood. 'You – into the shower, I'll have to bathe you.' She gave Devin a wry grin. 'We're ok, thanks for asking…'

Devin looked pale. 'I know him. Sir Varien – first mate on the Galahad.'

'The Galahad isn't one of the ships who've declared for the opposition,' Vivienne said sharply. 'And we had no word of any defections.'

Kastchei gave a minimal shrug. 'Elphin himself said it's not the ships and officers who've openly declared that worry him,' he said softly. 'You –' to Devin. 'Can you get a message through?'

Devin looked as though he was going to object, then sighed. 'I'll get back to the Sorcha.'

'Good boy.' Kastchei turned his attention back to the corpse. 'I wasn't actually trying to kill him. He was just a bit too energetic for his own good.'

'Somehow,' Locke replied icily, getting to her feet, 'I doubt he'd find that comforting.'

'Well we can't interrogate a corpse,' Vivienne said, looking away from the body, feeling a little queasy. 'Well done.'

''I'll send someone to clear up the mess,' Locke told them. 'Will I need to keep someone on call?' she asked.

Kastchei gave her a withering look. 'I'll try to keep the death toll to a minimum, madam.' He gave Vivienne an apologetic shrug. 'Looks as though you're stuck with me tonight after all,' he said lightly. She threw him a towel.

'Fine. Then you can clean the dog, since you got him dirty,'

He handed her her sword back on his way past, accepting the task without a murmur. 'Don't tell him everything,' he said quietly, before shutting the door.

With the connecting door shut, Kane finally stepped into the room.

'Quite a double act,' he said coldly, sitting on the edge of the bed. Locke sat beside him, one eye on the door. 'Who's Alia?'

'Alianora Marevna, former Queen of Winter,' Vivienne explained. 'She and Kit were quite an item, for a time.'

'Alia?' he mused. 'I don't… wait.' He cocked his head on one side, and strangely, it was the blind eye socket that she felt was staring right through her. She swallowed hard. Uncovered by the eyepatch, his face was a mess, the socket mangled beyond repair, a mass of misshapen scar tissue, the scarring running across his face onto his cheek. Although she tried not to stare, it was difficult not to let her gaze trace the path of the damage. His chest was criss-crossed with horrific scars, some had pitted the muscle, others puckered the skin, overlapping in places. Even his arms bore the same marks.

'He told you, I suppose?' Kane said, following the direction of her stare. She brought her gaze back up to meet his cyclopean stare, and failed. 'Not a pretty sight, I know. And staser – sorry "hellfire" burns don't regenerate. Mind you, you should have seen the other guys.'

'I'm surprised you're still alive,' she countered.

'It's amazing what can keep a man going,' he replied. 'Now – this Alia. Wouldn't happen to have been a red-headed dragon-born would she? Tallish, snooty, bug up her ass?'

Vivienne nodded, hiding a grin at the description. 'You could say that.'

'Ailla. I should have guessed. He woke her up, didn't he? Damnfool romantic bastard. Coulda told him she'd be trouble.' Kane sighed heavily. 'Kitten – you shouldn't hang out with this guy, you know that? He'll be the death of you.'

'I think I can take care of myself,' she said frostily. She looked down at the corpse rather pointedly. 'Are you going to get this taken care of?'

'In a minute. How many feuds are in motion between you people? I don't need more trouble round here.'

'Look. I don't know what history you and Kastya have – right now, I don't care.' She took a deep breath. 'But Kastya wants Kai's head on a spike, and Alia's, and yours.'

'Except that Alia isn't here…' Kane slapped his forehead dramatically. 'Marya Marevna. Regenerated?'

'Sort of. She had an avatar running loose,' Vivienne told him. 'Kit sort of finished off her original body. Turned her blood to ice.'

His eyebrow over the good eye shot up. 'Now that's a neat trick. Redundant, but neat. I guess he's no longer hanging onto his lost love then.'

'Not when she tried to kill him, no.'

Kane gave Locke a strange look, after Vivienne had spoken. 'Oh, I don't know. It can lead to a beautiful friendship.' He turned back. 'So he wants me, Kai and his ex dead. Not good. I never did like a three way fight.' He stood up. 'Watch your backs, kitten. In my backyard, I'll come running, but on the rest of the station, you're on your own.' He put an arm round Locke's shoulders, and turned to leave. Two workers scurried into the room, carrying a stretcher between them. Kane pointed to the body, and with only a nod, they got to work. He jerked his head at Vivienne. 'I hope you got some influence with that boy, kitten. Don't let him run riot. For all our sakes.'

'He's not the man you think he is,' Vivienne said quietly. 'At least, not any more.'

Kane rubbed his ruined eye socket. 'Hold that thought, kitten. I hope I never have to remind you of it.'

'He's the one man who might get you out of your own pickle,' she retorted. 'Maybe you should just put aside your differences and level with him?'

'My sentiments exactly,' Locke muttered sharply, with a sideways glance at her boss.

Kane shrugged. 'I have my reasons, kitten. When you've been on this station a little while you might come to understand them a little better. You seem like a bright girl – think about it.' With that, he left, Locke following in his wake.

Kai rounded angrily on Alia. 'Are you completely stupid, woman?' The slap he landed on her face sent her flying, and she landed in a heap on the floor, glaring angrily at him. 'I lost a good man because of your petty vendetta.'

'You'd have been receptive enough if Varien had succeeded,' she replied acidly.

'But he didn't, did he?' Kai asked. 'He's too good to be taken out like that, Alia. You don't catch a man like that by sending in a mere assassin, however good. And now not only have you cost me a good man, but one whose presence here exposes one of our ships.'

'Well at least your little spy will nip that one before it comes back to haunt you,' Alia snapped. 'I had to take the chance, Kaiwyn. Kastchei knows we're here, he won't be idle. You're a fool if you think we can handle him head on. We both had our chance for that on Skazki. We both failed. He's dangerous – more so than you can know.'

Kai helped her to her feet, a little roughly. 'I've fought him, and he's not so tough without his pack of hell-hounds. Even Gareth managed to take him down and almost killed him. It's his knowledge that makes him dangerous.'

In the background, Devin hovered nervously, unheeded until he cleared his throat.

'He's an opportunist, an adventurer, not a hero. He's not going to stick his neck out for Kane. Your work here shouldn't be endangered.'

Kai turned on him. 'You don't feel that his desire to see me and Lady Alianora isn't a threat?' He tutted. 'Maybe we addled more of your brain than we thought.'

'His hatred for you will make him predictable,' Devin replied. 'If you can't guard your backs that isn't my problem. You're the Lord Commander of the Legion, after all.'

'And you are just a bard. Remember that,' Kai snapped. 'Elphin may allow your order some leeway in your manners, I do not.'

'My lord.' Devin bowed, and Kai laughed.

'You see, Alia? 'Hear the insolence in his tone? He's my creature, through and through, but he still fights, still believes he has some degree of autonomy.' He drew his sword with frightening speed and laid the edge of the blade against Devin's throat. 'You have nothing, Devin. Nothing that does not come from me. Even your life is mine to take if I choose.'

'You could play that card too often, my lord,' Devin replied carefully, swallowing hard. 'Even a tame raven could peck out an eye if it had a mind.'

Alia placed a hand on Kai's, and he lowered the sword. 'Enough,' she chided him. 'Bickering amongst ourselves is pointless.' She smiled at Devin, warmly. 'Send your message – it makes no matter. The Galahad will be out of their range by the time they can act.'

'Lady.' Devin's bow to her was more sincere, and he left the room stiff-backed.

Alia took a seat and leaned back, staring at Kai coldly. 'You push him too far, my lord. Can you be so sure your conditioning will hold?'

Kai grunted. 'You misunderstand the process, Alia. The dead return to life in the cauldrons so easily, but it is such a fragile process, as you yourself know. We cast our memories into the matrix, and hope that we return intact. Poor Devin, I'm happy to say, did not.'

'And no-one suspects?'

'Not yet. Master Devin was known to have been injured in the line of duty – but not even his lover suspects that that "injury" proved fatal.' He took the chair opposite to Alia's and poured a glass of wine, grimacing at the taste when he sipped it. 'Wine does not travel well in space.' He put the goblet down. 'Ironically, it was Taliesin himself who gave us the idea: poor flawed creature – a shadow of his former self. If Merlin could be so changed in the process of creating his revenant, then, Calaitin argued, we could try it with someone else – someone less iconic. The results are useful, you have to admit.'

'As long as you don't undo them,' she added acidly.

He laughed down his nose, but said nothing.

 

 

 

Chapter 11

 

You wanted to know the truth and you called it a 'small' condition.

I, Claudius

 

'When you want information,' Vivienne said brightly, throwing an armful of durafilm onto the table, 'you just can't beat the press.'

'You are joking?' Devin looked sourly at the broadsheets she'd dropped in front of him. 'This rubbish? Lies, rumour, misinformation and gossip?'

'Standard reading for the bard's guild then,' Kastchei said from his chair on the other side of the room, where he was scrawling his own notes on a device of his own making. Devin bristled visibly at the jibe, but Kastchei pointedly ignore him.

'Stop it you two,' Vivienne snapped. She spread the sheets across the table, and began to sort them into date order. 'Devin – I understand the bards' prejudices on this matter, but out here, they don't have bards, they get their news the old fashioned way.'

'Well if you'll excuse me, perhaps I can better serve by doing it my way,' he replied. 'There's a bar on the lower levels, I might as well try there first, and then see where that takes me. There's always ways for a musician to move around such places, after all.' He swept out of the room, leaving Vivienne staring open mouthed.

'Let him go,' Kastchei said softly, still scribbling. 'The boy's nothing but a flapping ornament. And he's right, he probably will do better in the bars.' The corners of his mouth quirked into his trademark grin. 'If nothing else, whatever he picks up might work off a bit of that frustration he's building up.'

Vivienne rifled through the papers, and sighed. 'You're impossible – that's evil. And leave me to go through this lot, why don't you!'

Kastchei looked up briefly and grinned at her. 'It's what you're best at, isn't it?'

She pulled a face at him, wrinkling her nose and sticking her tongue out. 'Anything coming out of your notes?' she asked, skimming the headlines on the first sheet, before laying it aside.

'Not yet. Gods, but I wish we had Talya.'

She looked up. 'You too?'

'Compared to that ninny?' He snorted. 'Yes. At least your boy has a brain, even if he keeps backing down when he has to use it.'

'Unfair,' she chided him. He waved off the accusation. 'I wish there was a way to get word,' she continued. She stared blindly at the broadsheets, the words blurring, out of focus.

'He can take care of himself,' Kastchei said, not unkindly. 'He's had plenty of practice, in this and other lives. Concentrate on what you can deal with, my dear, not on what you can't. Otherwise you'll get nothing done.'

She raised her head, but he'd already turned his attention back to his work. 'I don't know how you can be so calm, sometimes. It's…'

'Inhuman?' he asked, without looking up. 'I hate to break it to you, my dear, but "human" is something you could never accuse me of being.'

'If your next line is "I walk in eternity,' she retorted 'I'm going to give you such a thump.'

He looked up at that, and flashed her a fleeting grin. 'That's far too poetically pretentious for me, Vivienne: sounds like something Talya would say.'

'Sort of,' she replied, remembering.

He snapped his fingers, startling her from the reveries of the past. 'Leave the past where it is, 'Nina. The present is a big enough worry for now.'

She sighed, and turned her attention back to the sheets, scanning the columns with a practised eye, discarding some, making notes on others.

It wasn't long before she had the first pattern.

'Anything in those notes about who owns a penny dreadful called the Shift?' She tapped her stylus on the table idly.

'Simon D'Alembert. There's a mention of it in Kane's notes: a little matter of him working up a frenzy over the disappearences and deaths, at least according to Locke. She seems to think he was working the story.'

'She could be right. When you compare their copy to the other sheets, there's a definite odour to it.' She grinned. 'Takes an old hack to sniff it out.'

'What does your journalistic nose make of the overall situation with this D'Alembert?' Kastchei asked. He moved to stand behind her, looking over her shoulder, as she shuffled through her notes.

'Young, handsome, talented - rose through the ranks pretty quickly – started off as a small time smuggler, did a few favours for the syndics, made a name for himself and started carving out his own little empire – but he started out - get this - as an engineer on one of Kane's ships, but was dropped by the captain for unspecified reasons – but since the captain in question is Alex Korday, that could be anything from murder to talking back out of turn.' She could sense Kastchei's query, even behind her. She smiled. 'Korday's well known in Alliance space – a maverick even amongst the so-called "free traders". Most of that bunch avoid officially mandated Alliance shipping lanes – the chances of running into our patrol ships are too high, but the Abbadon is a corsair class vessel left over from Arthur's time – seems a lot of junk made it out this far – most of it for scrap.'

'I know her,' Kastchei said. 'I was the one who dragged her out of the scrap heap. Kane must have rescued her in the confusion that followed the end of the rebellion. I'm not surprised her captain's over-confident: she could take on anything bar the Prydwen herself in her day. Although I'm amazed he managed to find anyone to pilot it.'

Vivienne grinned. 'And what a pilot: Korday fought for our lot during the war, but refused a commission afterwards. No-one really knows why, because half the fleet would have followed him into hell if he'd ordered them to. One of the reasons he's so free riding shotgun in our space is that we can't find an officer in the fleet who'll do more than fire a warning shot over his bow. Though I'm surprised to find him out here – it's a little small-scale for Alex.'

'Perhaps the Abbadon was the draw?'

Vivienne shook her head. 'Piracy and riding shotgun for "free traders" is a hell of a step down from Admiral of the fleet. Plus there's some controversy about the Abbadon…' She ruffled through her notes. 'She's gotten through well over a dozen pilot/captain candidates - the ship's got a reputation as a killer.' She yelped as Kastchei yanked the flimsy films from her hands. 'Hey!'

'I remember. Cost me two good men before I gave it up as a bad job. I find it a little strange that you just "happen" to have the information that's relevant,' he said, looking at the dates on the copies. 'Anything you'd care to share?'

'Just give those back.' He handed them to her and she straightened the pile. 'Kane's assistant, Regan Locke, dropped them off for me. I think she's not too happy about this cloak and dagger routine.'

'A flunky with a mind of her own? He must be in love,' Kastchei mocked. More seriously he continued: 'So, we have a top flight captain marking time on an ancient, possibly insane drakkhar, and the former engineer on that ship now making a play for power in the shipping business with organics – connection?' He mused aloud.

'Kane's got something in the pipeline?' Vivienne suggested. 'D'Alembert's put himself in the shipping business, taking over the vats…'

'After your rogue druid heads here for safety when your little coup pays off?'

'Fair enough guess. Let me make one – there's nothing in that little download you made last night about this, or Kane's business?'

His sour look was the only answer she needed. 'Like I said: Kane's playing games. There's more going on here than we thought. There's not a trace of this, just hints and pointers to this affair with the amadan.' He took a deep breath. 'D'Alembert's working – supposedly – we think - on a capital ship for Kai, and he wanted Dragon-born purebreds in payment. He's also got a cauldron-master on his payroll. I don't think we need to make too big a jump here. Without the Golden Book, I can't find out what Alia took from Skazki, but you can bet it was dangerous – and the amadan might be the least of it.' He strode into his own rooms, and came back buttoning his coat and carrying his sword.

'Where do you think you're going?' she asked.

He grinned, looking almost feral. 'Hunting. I want to take a look at what D'Alembert's growing in that vat.' He was already out of the door before she could reply.

He lied: D'Alembert's complex was not his immediate goal. Instead, with the unerring senses of a born predator, he found his way through the winding corridors of the 'Dance, through three of the stones, and down to a small room at the heart of the Starstone, where once a man had been dragged, stripped, tortured and torn apart by those whose only job was to make him suffer.

He hadn't forgotten the route, although he'd trodden it only once. As he approached, his heartbeats grew just a little faster, and he calmed them only with an effort. Only noticing the death grip he had on the hilt of his sword when several people he passed dropped their own hands to their own weapons, he had to force himself to relax.

The room itself was in a little-used sector of the stone, deep inside the asteroid, and in an unprepossessing area. The door was closed, and he stood for several minutes with his hand resting lightly on the key-panel.

Finally, with a deep breath, he pushed the panel, expecting the door to be locked.

The door swished open easily, opening onto a dark room.

'Lights,' he called out, his voice cracking unpardonably when he spoke. The diffuse lighting lit up a small bare room, with an observation window at the top of the left hand wall.

Far from bearing the remains of the device that had bound him for so long, the wall opposite the window was bare, although the outline of a star-shaped device could be clearly made out on the worn stone.

'I had it taken down this morning,' Locke said, stepping out of the shadows, so quietly even his senses hadn't detected her. 'It should already be melted down into scrap by now.' She stood beside him, the din lighting highlighting her sharp cheekbones, casting her angular face into light and shadow. She was beautiful, if in a hard, razor-edged way.

Something metallic and heavy thudded onto the floor at his feet, and he looked down to see, half-expected, the statue of Kali from Kane's office.

'If you ever do anything like this again, I'll gut you myself,' she told him coldly. 'We have enough problems around here without the two of you picking at your own and each other's wounds. It stops now.'

'Does Kane know you've gone behind his back on this?' he asked, almost amused at her presumption.

She shrugged. 'I don't care what either of you think of this,' she told him bluntly. 'Or what you think you have to prove to yourselves by constantly picking at scabs under the excuse of "facing up to your fears" or whatever you want to call it. What I think both of you forget is that there are people around you who also have to live with that, and with you. Get over it.' She turned to leave, hesitated, turned back. 'He'll be at the pit tomorrow morning. I suggest you talk to him then.'

He stood in the centre of the room for several minutes once she'd left, but – perhaps as she'd intended – the intensity he's expected to feel in this place had gone. Nothing remained as a reminder.

Almost nothing.

He turned and stared up at the observation window, remembering Morgaine looking down upon her prey; strangely impassive, for her, given the circumstances.

His foot caught something heavy and he looked down, seeing the mangled statuette from Kane's office. On a whim, he picked it up, and placed it at the foot of the wall on which he'd hung for so long.

Sometimes, scabs that itched just had to be scratched, no matter what the cost.

He turned, and without a backward glance, left the room.

 

Vivienne looked up blearily as the door chimed. 'Yes?' she asked.

'It's Locke,' came the reply.

'It's open,' Vivienne told her. The door opened to admit the blonde.

'You're too trusting,' Locke told her. Vivienne grinned.

'Hardly,' she said, clicking her fingers. Under the table, Cafall shifted and lifted his head off his paws, gazing red-eyed at Locke. 'What can I do for you?'

The blonde perched on the edge of the desk, one foot on the floor, the other dangling idly. 'Some of our ships are coming in. Kane suggested you and your friends might like to take a look at the operations.'

'A look at his defences as a warning, you mean?'

Locke shook her head. 'Hardly. But I believe you know one of our captains – his brother's one of your bards, after all.'

'Marius. I know Marco almost as well as I do Tal, but Alex…' Vivienne said softly, with a shrug. 'I met him only once, the night before Elphin's coronation. El had sent for Tal to negotiate with Korday and ask him to take command of the fleet.' She stared past the blonde, lost in memory for a moment. 'He didn't stay long – Tal, Marius and Elphin were the only people he'd talk to, and the four of them are the only ones who know what happened in that council chamber after they sent me away.'

'Pity,' Locke said dryly. 'I'd love to know why he turned it down myself. I've known the man for almost fifteen years and he's still a mystery.'

'I'd love to know why he told Kane about Marius – as far as I know neither of them usually let that snippet of information out to the general public,' Vivienne replied.

Locke smiled. 'Try asking him.' She jumped lightly to the floor. 'So – do you want to see the ships come in? We'll need to pick up your bard-'

Vivienne shook her head. 'Not Devin,' she said firmly. 'Not if Korday's around. And I don't know where Kit is.'

Locke shrugged. 'Fair enough. Coming?'

'Lead on,' Vivienne told her.

The docking bay on the Heelstone contained only one ship apart from the Sorcha - and that a tired looking freighter being loaded in a distant corner. But the walkways and galleries were crammed to capacity with onlookers. Vivienne gave Locke a questioning look.

'It's tradition,' Locke said quietly. 'When our people go out, we see them off safely. And when they return – or not – we wait.'

Vivienne took a closer look at the crowds that parted before the Lord of the Dance's right hand as she passed through in the taller woman's wake, and realised that most of them were women. Young, old… some with children, some in black. They waited, not in silence, but in a subdued cloud of chatter that in some ways was more sobering than silence could ever be.

'All hands clear the docking area. Shields extending to external limits. All hands, clear the docking area,' came the chiming voice over the comms system. Locke had led Vivienne to a place at the front of the crowd waiting at the edge of the floor, from where they had a view straight across the cavern to the force-wards that glowed red across the mouth of the bay. The wards bulged outwards, and then contracted back into the station, bringing with them the first of the returning ships.

'The Valour,' Locke said quietly, as the slender needle-shaped vessel came to a stop and was lowered by the docking wards to the floor. Only seven people disembarked from her lowered ramp, six men following a tall brunette woman in a dark green flightsuit. 'Captained by Ashley Quinn.' Only two women ran forwards to greet the crewmembers, who were whisked off into the crowd. Quinn strode over to where Locke and Vivienne were standing, and nodded once to Locke as she came to a halt in front of the blonde. 'Regan.' Her voice was deep and harsh, but the smile she gave Locke was warmer. The two women clasped hands.

'No real trouble?' Locke asked. Quinn shook her head.

'Beats me – we were already on our way back when we got your message.' At Locke's questioning look she shrugged. 'It was Alex's call. Ran into a nasty skirmish on the borders of Orcadian space about a week ago. He seemed to think we had to get back in a hurry, buggered if I know why, but for some reason, it shook him up a bit.'

'I'll need to see both of you in Kane's office, later. You've got two hours to freshen up, Ash.'

Quinn saluted. 'I'll be there.'

She sauntered off as the second ship came in from the cold, and Vivienne found her attention drawn from the captain, to the arriving ship.

Oblivious to the docking regulations and the sudden screeching of warning sirens, a slender drakkhar shot into the docking bay at a speed that sent the people on the ground scurrying for cover, and several onlookers ducked in the galleries as the vessel showed little sign of stopping.

She'd seen the ship years ago, but the Abbadon had undergone a major refit since then. The main body of the ship was sleeker and boasted what looked suspiciously like a new array of hellfire cannon from the armaments satellites of Fomoria. However the gaping maw of her hellbore mass driver was intact on her underbelly, and Vivienne swallowed hard as the ship came to a graceful halt facing her, remembering the devastating effects of the Prydwen's weapon on Skazki eighteen months ago.

Ground crew, most of them looking pale, but resigned, ran back to take care of the necessities, as the ramp was lowered. Locke, Vivienne noticed, had a face like thunder as she watched the procedure.

The crew disembarked, three bullet-shaped coffins on suspensor fields ahead of them. With the force wall retracted back to the mouth of the bay, the crowd of family members awaiting the return of their loved one's surged forwards. Some to be met by husbands and wives, others wailing their grief, helped away from the scene by other women.

The captain was the last to leave his ship, and Vivienne caught only a glimpse of a tall figure before he made his way over to the families of the bereaved.

Only after the men and their families had dispersed, did he make his way towards Locke. A tall, lanky figure in scruffy spacer coveralls, two days growth of stubble on his face and a slouching, insolent walk.

Any thoughts that he was just another diehard spacer were dispelled by the easy way his hand rested on the hilt of the ancient powersword strapped to his right hip. That, and an indefinable look in the blue eyes that peered out from underneath a tangle of dark curls that threatened to obscure most of his face with every step, but somehow avoided it.

'Locke.'

No bow. No nod of the head, just a clear, steady, blue-eyed gaze from under that unruly tumble of black hair, and a faint smile that was so familiar – though to Vivienne, usually framed by a dark beard on a face almost as familiar to her as Taliesin's was.

So much of the past coming home to roost in the present. She wondered if Kane knew just who it really was he had running errands for him in that ancient battleship.

She suspected that he did.

'Korday.' Locke's answer was equally cool, perhaps even a little frosty. 'One day you're going to mistime that, you arrogant little prick.'

'Only if I'm dead, sweetheart.' He placed his arm around her shoulders and it was angrily thrown off. He laughed. 'What – no warm welcome, Regan? You know, if you ever get tired of Kane…'

'Only if I'm dead,' Locke snapped. 'Excuse me, I think I need to get upwind.' She suited action to words, but Korday's gaze was fixed on Vivienne's face, not on Locke's

'I know you, yes?' He didn't wait for an answer. 'Vivienne – isn't that your name? You were with the bard – the one they claim is Merlin returned?'

He had, she remembered now, a deliberately nasal drawl – a striking contrast to Marius's precise clipped tones, and, she'd suspected, another deliberate attempt, like the scruffy spacedog act, to distance himself from the fastidious Marius.

The two, she remembered, did not get along.

She nodded. 'You have a good memory, my lord.'

Locke's surprised cough elicited a grin from her, but she continued without looking at the taller woman. 'I overheard Captain Quinn say you'd just had some trouble near Orcadia…'

'Several ships of the line whose captains should have known better,' he interrupted. 'Regan – be a dear, run along for a few minutes, will you? I have a private matter to discuss with Lady Vivienne.'

Locke bristled at the patronising tone, and looking from one to the other, Vivienne caught Korday's amused smile. It seemed touch and go for a minute as to whether or not Kane's deputy would back down, but after a strained pause, she did so, retreating to a vantage point a few feet away, leaning against a wall.

Korday took Vivienne's arm, not ungently, and led her away.

'My brother…?' he asked, concern written suddenly on a previously impassive mien.

Differences aside, blood was always thicker than water, Vivienne thought. Even when – or perhaps especially when – they were spilling it.

'The last time I saw Marco, he was leaving with Taliesin for Orcadia,' Vivienne told him. 'That was almost a week ago, just after…'

'… the timequake?' he asked. She nodded. 'I felt it. We were almost on top of the damn planet when it hit. You don't want to know how long it took for me to pick myself up off the bridge floor. What in the name of Annwfn is going on?'

She shrugged. 'Your guess right now is as good as anyone's. Lord Alexander…'

'Alex,' he told her abruptly. 'Dispense with titles, please – unless you prefer "captain".' He smiled at that, and the resemblance between the brothers was even more marked, although she had to admit that it had been so long since she'd seen Marius without a beard, it was difficult to remember just how alike they were – or not.

'Alex – he was hurt, badly, about eighteen months ago. How much do you know about recent events in the Alliance?'

'Not a great deal, I've spent most of the last few years working beyond the Mag Tuiread. I've heard rumours that Elphin's had some trouble, but nothing solid. Why? Is there something I should know?'

He sounded so like Marius with that last question, the studied drawl stripped away by concern, that she was hard pressed not to treat him as she would his brother, and blurt out the whole story.

But this was not Marius. And just how much could you trust the devil's brood?

'Your father's back,' she said, raising her eyes again to look into his.

To his credit, he didn't bat so much as an eyelash.

'I see.'

No-one in the vat-chambers paid much attention to the man in dark coveralls walking briskly through the area colloquially known as the "loom" – one more technician, more or less was nothing remarkable.

Kastchei hid an amused smile. As he'd often said to Vivienne, it really was just a matter of looking as though you belonged and acting accordingly. No-one ever question what they expected to see.

She'd be proud of him, this time – he hadn't even killed the technician he'd taken the coveralls from in the bathroom – just sent him home with a few altered memories and a nasty headache.

The cauldron-master's console filled a large circular dais in the centre of the room – at least twice the size of his own device back on Breceliande, he judged. But even that paled beside the size of the vats that this particular device controlled. The capital-vats – large enough, as the name implied, to contain a fully-grown drakkhar of the line – hung flaccidly for the most part outside the asteroid that housed the mechanisms for their function. Kastchei settled down at one station, and ran his fingers over the embossed surface, feeling the familiar sigils with his fingertips. The vates orb in front of him lit up, and he began to query the system, dancing around the safeguards with the delight of one who'd not exercised such skill in a very long time.

He smiled inwardly. Compared to the homeworld's organic matrix, this was child's play, and even that had been no hard feat for him as a youth.

'Excuse me – are you supposed to be here?'

He turned to look at the female technician standing behind him, looking awkward at the idea of questioning his right to be here. Humans, he thought, were so predictable. Always so polite about voicing their concerns.

'Sirannon swapped shifts with me,' he replied, making eye contact with her. 'He wasn't feeling too well.' He handed her a small ID chip. 'You'll find everything is in order.'

It wasn't, but she would. Blushing at her presumption and embarrassment at making a mistake, she apologised and left him in peace. He sneered inwardly, and turned his attention back to the orb.

A little while later he sat back, staring at the globe. Outwardly impassive, he stared at the data. But no matter how hard he looked at it, it didn't add up.

The slight dimming of the lights signalled a shift change, and with the rest of the workers, he stood up. Unlike the technicians, however, he didn't exchange the control room for the companionable chatter of the corridor and off-shift destinations. Instead, he slipped unnoticed with the new shift into the observation balcony from which the vats could be monitored visually, and made his way around the gallery to where the most advanced of the gestating drakkhar lay.

The lights were dimmed in the observation gallery, but the faint glow that remained was enough to see the growing bulk of the drakkhar through the thing membrane of the vat that surrounded it. Kastchei leaned on the railing that surrounded the gallery, and looked down upon the gestating ship-form.

She floated in her amniotic sac, serene and as yet unaware. But the information in the system told a tragic story: unlike her sister-ships, this one would never be awakened of her own accord. Lobotomised in the womb, she drifted, waiting, light refracted through the fluids surrounding her giving her skin a shimmering, multicoloured rainbow mottling that the eye couldn't quite put a shape to.

'Now what,' Kastchei muttered, 'could anyone possibly do with a brain-dead, weaponless capital ship?'

A rhetorical question, and he chided himself almost immediately for the indulgence. The question was "what could the right kind of man do with a lobotomised capital ship and a cargo of dragon-born experimental subjects, almost certainly time-aware, if not time-active in some way?" And that was a question he knew too many answers to. None of them good.

His presence would be noticed if he stayed much longer. Regretfully, he took one last look at the unborn ship, and slipped out of the gallery, sauntering out of the chamber as casually as he could.

A slim figure in the shadows watched him walk away, and after waiting for him to get far enough ahead, with a couple of people between them, Alia slipped out of the concealing shadow of the gallery, and followed him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve

Kane looked up as Locke walked into his office unannounced, and scowled. 'This had better be good, kiddo.'

Locke had to almost jump sideways as Korday pushed past her, taking the chair in front of Kane's desk, and put his feet up on the desk.

Kane looked him up and down, taking in the scruffy apparel, and raised the eyebrow over his good eye. 'God gods, Alex, couldn't you at least get changed first?'

Locke closed the door behind her as she left, and Kane waited.

'He's here, isn't he?' Korday said softly. 'My dear uncle? Don't deny it, Kane.'

'Why would I bother? It changes nothing, Alex.' Kane reached for one of the two carafes on his desk and was about to pour a glass from it when Korday coughed discreetly. With a wolfish grin, he put down the carafe in his hand and picked up the one closer to him, pouring two goblets. He offered one to Korday, who took it and knocked it back in one gulp.

'You ever try that trick on me, Kane, and I'll make you drink that stuff yourself. I'm surprised you get away with it.'

'Like anyone's gonna call me out on it. Besides - who pays that much attention? You're early – I wasn't expecting you for at least two days.'

Korday placed the goblet back on the desk. 'Ran into some heavy traffic around Orcadia. I lost three men. We were already on the way back when your message arrived. Is there something going on I should know about?'

'You missed your brother by a few thousand kliks then,' Kane drawled, refilling the goblet. 'He's there right now.'

Korday raised his hand to silence him. 'I already spoke to one of Elphin's people. I know. Nate's up to his eyeballs in trouble if he's on that planet right now.' He picked up the goblet and stared moodily into the blood-red liquid it held.

'Don't even think it, Aelric,' Kane snapped. The use of the name snapped Korday's attention back to him. 'I need you here. If he's half as good as you, he'll handle it with one arm tied behind his back.'

Korday stared at him over the rim of the goblet, cloudy blue eyes half-hidden by his tangle of dark hair. 'Difficult,' he murmured, before quaffing the contents down. 'I hear he's managed to lose one.' He ran his fingers through the tangled curls and grimaced. 'Kane – I don't suppose-'

Kane leaned back in his chair. 'Knock yourself out,' he drawled, gesturing towards the door to his private quarters. 'You know, we do have plenty of empty rooms.'

'Whatever,' Korday replied, already heading through the door.

He returned a few minutes later, clean, shaven, and dressed in dark blue breeches and a white shirt, over which he was pulling a dark blue coat. His hair spread a darker stain over his shoulders, where it dripped onto his coat.

Locke was now back, perched as usual on the edge of Kane's desk. She looked up briefly as Korday entered, then went back to studying the reports in front of her. Ashley Quinn grinned at him from a corner of the room, where she was leaning against the wall.

'Hot date? she asked him cheekily. 'Who knew you cleaned up so pretty?'

'Who knew he cleaned up?' Locke muttered, loudly enough to be heard.

'Play nice, children,' Kane chided. The door opened and Taran walked in, gabbling his apologies for being late, which were waved off by Kane. 'Well, my gang's all here. Shall we begin, people?'

 

A hunter soon learns to recognise the feeling between the shoulder blades that tells him he has become the prey. He ducked into the restroom to change, and to pick up his coat from the locker he'd stuffed it into neatly, earlier. When he came out, she was waiting for him, leaning against the wall and smiling coquettishly – the flinty coldness of her eyes a striking contrast to Marya's delicate prettiness. Novgoren's chatelaine had been a vapid little goose, he reflected, but no-one deserved Alia.

If there was a voice inside that tried to remind him of the two good men whose bodies he'd taken, it was easily squashed.

'I should have realised you'd show up sooner or later,' he said. He looked her up and down. 'You should be a little more careful wearing something off the peg,' he drawled. 'It's too young for you.'

'I don't recall that stopping you seducing her,' Alia snapped back.

He waited.

'Kastya – this is pointless.'

'How true. I really should have taken more care when killing you.'

She flinched. 'This didn't have to be your fight,' she continued.

'You say that so often,' he said softly, 'and yet it proves only that you never understood me, Ailla. And that I seriously misjudged you.'

The door behind him was partly open, revealing a disused room. He pushed her inside and shut the door behind them. 'Why are you following me? It's not as if you can't work out why I'm here.'

She smiled. 'Perhaps not, but it helps to know just what you're up to. You've been talking to Kane, I understand. Is he who I think he is?'

Kastchei shrugged. 'Maybe. Would it matter?'

'You pick poor alliances these days, Kastya. The helpless and the hopeless, the worn-out relics that will soon be swept aside. You used to have better sense than that. Why ally with the losing side?' She took a step closer, then stopped. When he didn't step back, she sidled closer, and placed her hand on his arm. 'What do you owe these fools? You could have destroyed them in a heartbeat when you were at your peak. You never cared about anything but your own agenda before – why start now?'

'You're assuming I don't have one now?' he asked, sounding amused. 'Maybe this is part of my own plan – or hadn't that occurred to you?'

'Playing hero?' she scoffed. 'I'm surprised it doesn't turn your stomach.'

Kastchei pulled away from her and twisted her arm brutally as he turned and drew her closer, her back to him, one arm around her neck.

'Who's playing the hero?' he asked coldly. He increased the pressure against her throat. 'I don't see anyone here being heroic, do you?'

'You're breaking my arm,' she complained in a hoarse, forced whisper.

'Be thankful it's not your neck,' he told her laconically, and smiled as he felt her flinch. 'Did you really think you stand a chance of walking out of here alive, Ailla?'

He felt her body tense at the use of her old name, and relaxed his hold on her arm, at the same time releasing her. She pulled out of his grip and spun round to face him, dark curls tumbling over her shoulder, bare where his hands and torn the fabric of her suit.

'There are forces at work here even you can't fight,' she said breathlessly, rubbing her throat. 'There's a new order coming, Kastchei – why not be a part of it?'

'This would be the "new order" that wanted me dead, remember?' He sat down on the edge of the bed, not taking his eyes off her for a moment. 'At your hands.'

She looked down at her hands, turning them over to look at the backs, then at the small palms. When she looked up, his eyes had taken on a stormy, violet hue. She knelt at his feet and took his hands in hers, staring up into his eyes as she did so.

'You had your revenge for that, on Skazki,' she whispered, dropping her voice into a low, husky register. 'Look at me, Kastya – I'm not the same woman.' She lifted her left and reached out to touch his cheek, very lightly, running her fingers over the angular ridge of his cheekbone, and down to his jaw. 'We had something together, you and I – and I don't mean those years on Skazki – I'm talking about before that, before the War, before it all went so wrong.'

From sitting on her heels she sat upright, until her face was level with his, and leaned forward to kiss him. Her lips brushed his lightly, and she felt him tense, but he didn't pull away, and emboldened by this, she deepened the kiss, holding back a small smile of triumph when he responded in kind. His free hand moved to cup her head and draw her closer, and she yielded to the gesture, allowing him to pull her in, his fingers entangled in her hair. Then his teeth closed sharply on her bottom lip and with a cry, it was Alia who broke the clinch, regarding him with a hurt look.

'That was uncalled for,' she snapped. She felt something warm trickle over her chin, and her fingers, brushing her lip and skin, came away bloodied.

'You forget just who you're dealing with, Alia,' he said softly, an air of cold menace in his silken tones. 'A timely reminder seemed in order. I do not like to be taken for granted.'

'Neither do I,' she replied tersely. His hand, still clutching her hair, released its stranglehold and wandered over her back, down to her waist, and she shivered.

'You should leave,' he told her, removing his hand and standing up, a move which overbalanced her and left her in a heap on the floor. Recovering as much dignity as she could she tried to salvage the situation. She took his place on the narrow bed, lying back and stretching her hands out towards him, wrists together.

'If you don't trust me,' she said silkily, 'you could always tie me up…'

She'd forgotten just how fast he could move when he wanted to; in the space of a double heartbeat he was astride her, his mouth on hers, demanding, as though dying of thirst and determined to drink his fill. She didn't struggle when he bound her wrists above and behind her head, to the pipe that snaked its way behind the bed. Mentally she'd braced herself for a savage reprisal, expecting him to be brutal when he took her.

It was therefore a shock akin to having a bucket of cold water thrown over her when instead of just taking her, once he knew she was at his mercy, he was instead intolerably gentle. Once his knife had cut her free of her flightsuit, and his own clothing lay beside the ruins on the floor, his hands caressed her with a thorough, exquisite intimacy, knowing every inch of her, every spot where the tips of his fingers or the brush of his tongue could make her beg him never to stop, that made her body – this new, different, untried body - ache, and by the time he'd moved on, with a slight, knowing smile, to regions ever more intimate, she was pleading with him – whether to stop, or continue and relieve the desire that he built, minute by minute and by the lightest touches, into a fever she thought would never break, she didn't care. He built a dam brick by brick, and part of her knew this of him – that he understood exactly what he was doing, and that she'd long since lost control of the situation. But too late, she understood what it was he was doing, even as her body yielded, demanding in her own turn as he finally granted the release she'd craved. She barely noticed that he'd released her bonds, and that her hands were pulling him deeper, even as she cried out, her head thrown back, her eyes closed as she let the waves wash over her. Finally, trembling with the reaction, she held him close, feeling his weight on top of her, flesh to flesh, his body warm, and for the first time, felt his heartbeats. Taking a shuddering breath, she opened her eyes, and looked into his.

His mind slammed into hers like a piledriver, merciless, brutally stripping away every defence, finding every weak spot and invading it. Her mouth open now not with passion, but in a silent scream, she was forced to look out through her own eyes at his triumphant smile as he regarded his handiwork. She'd forgotten, all too easily, just how powerful his coercive ability was: had trusted to emotion, forgetting just how easily he could – had always been able to – set such things aside when necessary.

'Now that I have your undivided attention,' he purred, 'I think now is the time for us to have a little talk about just what you and your friends have been up to, don't you?'

She tried to shake her head, and couldn't. Her eyes blazed impotent anger, and he only laughed.

'Don't even think it, my dear – everywhere you go inside your mind, I'll be waiting, looking back at you. You can do nothing – say nothing, unless I allow it.'

His weight was gone, and so was he, briefly, but he was back, dressed, at her side, within a minute. Sweat ran down her forehead, into her eyes, but she couldn't even blink it away.

He lifted a corner of the sheet and wiped it away, as tenderly as he'd made love to her, and in the place he'd left for her, she wept with frustration.

Vivienne was falling asleep, nodding over the transcripts and manifests Locke had dropped off, when the door opened. Blinking in the sudden glare of light from the corridor, she looked up blearily as a tall figure entered the room, without so much as a by your leave. The papers slid onto the floor as she scrambled over the bed for her knife.

'You won't need that.' The door slid shut behind Kastchei, and the dim glowstrip was again the only light, although she had to blink away the after image.

'Don't you ever knock?' she asked tartly. 'Where the hell have you been all day? I was-'

Without a word, he walked past her, and into the shower room, stripping off as he went. Her mouth open, she watched as he walked naked into the cubicle, and turned the water and power on full blast. He stood with his hands braced against the wall of the cubicle, his back to her, his head pressed against the slick surface, letting the hot water beat down upon his skin, until the rising steam obscured her view, and she finally stood up and walked warily over to the cubicle. Puzzlement, rather than modesty, made her stand outside.

'You know, you can't just walk in here and…'

He just stood there, unmoving, the water must have been unbearable hot, but he didn't flinch, didn't make a sound. She reached out a hand, tentatively, to touch his left arm, closest to her. 'Kit?'

'Don't touch me,' he said, in a voice so devoid of emotion it was like a slap in the face. She recoiled almost instinctively. Her hand hovered briefly in the space between them, before she brought it hesitantly back to her side, and walked back to the bed, biting her bottom lip, and darting uncertain glances back towards the shower periodically, as though seeking enlightenment in the steam.

Eventually, she heard the water stop, and the soft hum of the drying field. The extractors cleared the steam, and he stepped back into the room, reddened all over, his hair still damp. He kept her gaze firmly on his face – any lower and even in this mood she'd find him too distracting – but he refused to make eye contact. Barefoot, he padded over to her, and dropped without warning to his knees in front of her, and then, only then, did his eyes meet hers. They were a stormy, violent grey, flecked with violet, and for a moment, something deeply unhuman moved behind them. Something old. Something cold.

And yet…

Moved by a sudden sense that she couldn't put a name to, she laid her hand on his hair, and let her fingers entangle themselves in his dark auburn hair. A sharp shudder went through his frame, and his eyes returned to their normal blue. Without a word, he laid his head on her knee, and she bent her head over him, lightly kissing the top of his head, and just letting her hand rest on the back of his neck. And for the longest time, they didn't move. She didn't dare speak, although a hundred questions burned the tip of her tongue.

Eventually, he lay down beside her, still in silence, although the hideous tension was gone. Slowly, his head pillowed on her chest, he relaxed, and she heard his breathing settle into the soft rhythms of sleep, whilst her fingers stroked his hair, and eventually her own eyes closed, and she nodded off to sleep, unable to stay awake.

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

Asatoma Sat Gamaya, Tamasoma Jyotir Gamaya, Mrityorma Anritam Gamaya

(Lead me from the unreal to the Real, Lead me from the darkness to the Light, Lead me from the temporary to the Eternal.)

Only one person remained on board the ship when her captain returned: Meredyth ap Calion, first officer of the Abbadon was sitting in her flight-chair with her feet up on her console, when the bridge doors irised open softly, admitting a gentle gust of air and the tall, lanky form of her captain. She yawned, and didn't bother to turn up the lights. The bridge was lit only from the console screens, and Alex Korday moved through the resulting shadow like a ghost, dropping into the command chair heavily.

'You're late,' she accused, without much rancour. He grunted. She waited, knowing he'd speak eventually.

'How is he?' he asked eventually.

Meredyth shrugged. 'Twitchy. Has been ever since we landed. I really could have used you an hour or so ago, Captain - you know the ship responds better to you when he's in this sort of mood…'

'You're going to have to handle it,' he told her shortly, standing up. 'Not just you,' he corrected, smiling at her frown. 'Call Rufus, Shea and Maxim. I want all of the officers back on board. Have them put the men on standby, but don't bring them back on board unless I give the order. I want at least one of you on the bridge at all times. And have them bring Theo back with them - by the scruff of the neck if they have to, and don't let him off the ship again unless I say so.'

'Something going down that you want to share?' she asked.

An almost imperceptible shudder ran down the length of the ship. She laid a hand on her console, reaching out mentally, as Korday had taught her, to the Abbadon.

The vast, deep mind of the ship passed over hers only on the fringes, and even that left her feeling, as ever, drained and small: an insignificance.

But the ship settled, as though reassured again that it was not alone, and she breathed a sigh of relief, and took her hand from the console.

Her arm felt slightly numb. An illusion, she knew, but it never helped.

She felt Korday's hand clasp her shoulder gently, and she turned her head to look up into his eyes. He smiled faintly.

'It gets easier,' he promised.

'If it's that easy,' she asked, 'then why not complete the bonding? After all this time…'

He took his hand away and moved to stand in front of the viewer, staring out into the shadowed bay. 'You know why,' he said softly, coldly.

'You both protest too much,' she told him tartly. 'Like two people who've both lost a lover, clinging onto the past, each refusing to let the other in for fear of losing again.'

'You understand nothing,' he told her coldly, not looking at her. A sudden drop in temperature on the bridge made her shiver. Obviously, the ship agreed.

When they were both in this mood, it was better to just let them get on with it. 'I'll fetch the others,' she said to his back. He didn't reply, or acknowledge her. Shrugging, she left the bridge without a backward glance.

'Do you mind?' Korday asked out loud, as he heard the door shut behind her. 'There's a draught.'

The temperature rose back to its normal levels. 'Thank you.'

'You're welcome.'

Korday didn't look round, although the voice had materialised somewhere near his right shoulder. He closed his eyes, momentarily.

'Choose another form.'

The shadowy image reflected in the bridge's viewscreen vanished as he looked up, only to materialise again in front of him. A tall, leggy young woman in her late twenties, with long silvery blonde hair and grey eyes, dressed in a simple one-piece form fitting coverall stood in front of him, her hands on her hips.

'I like this one. And besides, it's one way to get your attention.'

'The wrong way. I mean it, old man. Pick something else.'

Unlike Neachtan, he was no bard; his voice cracked on the last syllable.

The ship's interface sighed, and shifted into the image of a young man with a mane of red-gold hair, and hazel eyes. 'Is this better?'

Korday's mouth compressed into a grim line. 'No.'

The imago smirked. 'Tough.' It glanced in the direction Meredyth had gone. 'I make her nervous.'

'She's young. And not even my kind understand yours anymore. If they ever did.'

The reply was short, and pithy. Korday smiled. 'Where did you pick up language like that?'

The ship's responsive quiver might have been a laugh. The fair-haired man simply smiled innocently.

Korday sighed heavily.

'Joking aside, we've got a problem. Simon seems to be working on a new breed of drakkhar - he's using dragon-born to meld with the ship's systems instead of awakening the ships themselves.'

'An abomination. Ulrich told you to kill him,' the ship said softly. Korday stood up and began pacing the bridge, and the ship's form promptly dropped lazily into the vacated command chair, one leg draped over the arm. 'But do you ever listen to anyone?'

Korday didn't reply.

'Wrong question,' the ship continued. 'You listen, you just don't always appreciate that sometimes, your friends might just have a better idea of what's necessary than you do.'

A pause. 'Well?'

Korday stopped in front of the viewscreen, his reflection staring back at him faintly in the dim light: a mirror image, briefly, of the young man sat in the captain's chair behind him, except, perhaps, a little older.

He blinked, and his own familiar face stared back at him. Dark haired, dark complexioned.

'Aelric…'

'Aelric's dead,' he replied curtly. 'He died with his ship at the Battle of Mag Tuiread, over two hundred years ago.'

Closing his eyes, he could see again the image that still haunted his dreams: The Hygeliac plunging into the Prydwen's bridge, dashing herself to pieces against the massive dreadnought. Could hear Buliwyf's last despairing cry, as his friend realised that his last gesture was meaningless against such a foe.

Could still see, and feel, his own Grendel, screaming in pain, and loss, and betrayal, as she plunged into the fiery pillars of the twin suns. Last of the proud ships of the House of Cerdic, and the last of its sons.

The ship's imago stood at his side, close, but not overlapping with him; a careful distance, once again the silvery haired woman.

Domino

'You surround yourself with so many lies, old friend. Too many. One by one they will be peeled away, and you will have to face what remains. And what then, prince of a dead House?'

'Then,' Korday said, staring out over the docking bay, 'I suppose I'll just have to deal with it.' He bowed his head. 'And avoiding facing your own concerns by focussing on mine is a low trick, Abbadon.'

'If you wanted a straightforward, honest, upright ship, you should have picked yourself a dreadnought, not a corsair,' the ship replied pithily. 'I can't help being a devious bastard, it's what I was created to be. You of all people should know that.' It sighed, changing form again, this time to that of an older, dark-haired woman whom Korday recognised as the ship's last captain. 'There's a darkness on this station, can't you feel it? Something old, and cold. I can feel it watching me, even now. It knows I'm here.'

'D'Alembert has an amadan,' Korday said softly. 'I don't think he intended to wake it up before installing it in a newborn drakkhar, but no matter. It is awake, and it's hungry.'

The ever-present hum of the engines deepened.

'These things… they hunger for death, and substance,' the Abbadon said, its image's gaze fixed on Korday, who nodded once. The lights on the bridge came on fully, blinding Korday momentarily, and he blinked away the after-image.

'Somehow,' he remarked to the empty bridge, which was never, ever deserted; not on a drakkhar. 'I don't think that's going to work against this bogeyman.'

The ship's comm system chimed.

'Yes?' Korday asked. Unasked, the ship activated the screen. Locke's face filled the circular display.

'Korday - sorry if I disturbed you,' she began.

'You didn't interrupt anything,' he reassured her smoothly. 'What is it?'

'Would you have misplaced something?' she asked. 'About five foot six, red-haired and a little too full of the joys of youth for its own good?'

Korday swore under his breath, noting Locke's knowing smirk. He sighed. 'Where is he, and how much will it cost me this time?'

'Sector four-five's lock ups, on the Sunstone.'

'Tell them to hold him till I get there,' he told her.

'Oh, don't worry,' she smirked, 'He's not going anywhere.' Her face peered closer to the screen. 'Hey - where'd you go?'

The ship closed down the link, with what might have been the equivalent of a heart-felt sigh.

 

'… plus thirty thousand for the damages, plus another six hundred for the arrest fee. Two hundred for the cell, and another five for my sergeant's medical fees.'

'Medical fees?' Korday paused in handing over a growing stack of credit chits.

The desk officer shrugged. 'The kid sank his teeth into his arm - needed five stitches.'

'I thought he was the bastard who jumped me,' the third person in the room muttered, scuffing the floor with a dusty black boot. 'He shouldn't sneak up on people.'

'Yeah, right.' The officer scooped up the chits and handed Korday a receipt. 'The fact that he happened to be the same guy who arrested you last time we saw you in here wouldn't have had any bearing on it, would it now?'

The green eyes that glared up at him from under a bushel of red-gold hair made him take an involuntary step back, despite the fact that they belonged to a skinny fourteen year old boy.

'Enough, Theo,' Korday said roughly, placing a hand on the boy's shoulder. He handed Theo his sword and dagger. 'Officer.' He nodded his thanks, and pushed his charge out of the station, and into the quiet thoroughfares of the 'Dance.

'How many times am I going to have to haul your scrawny little arse out of these joints, Theo?' Korday sighed. 'One of these days the ship will leave port without you. You're just too damn expensive, kid.'

Theo pulled on his coat, until now slung over one arm, and sauntered ahead. At least until Korday's longer strides brought the taller man to his side again, and a strong hand took his arm.

'Don't push it, Theo,' Korday warned, turning the boy to face him. 'No-one's indispensible.'

'But Alex…'

'That's "Captain",' Korday said, his voice carrying a suddenly harder edge. The boy glared at him, but quickly lost the staring match. He dropped his gaze, abashed. But only for a moment. When he raised his head again his expression had resumed a cocky poise.

'Captain. I'm sorry.'

'If the next words out of your mouth are "it'll never happen again", I'll bounce you off the wall,' Korday said calmly. Theo grinned cheekily.

'One day, you'll try it and it won't work.'

'Give it another six years, a hundred pounds and six inches. But until then, squirt, you'll mind your manners a little better. What possessed you this time? Someone get in your face about your age again?'

'Sorta,' Theo scuffed a broken bottle out of the way, and it bounced off the wall, startling two passersby, who speeded up their walk nervously. 'Some broad told me to come back when I'd grown up a bit. Then her fella took exception to my face.' He shrugged. 'The rest is history.' He smirked. 'And so's he.'

'So will you be if you keep after older women,' Korday told him.

Theo grinned at him. 'Yeah - but captain - at my age, they're all older women.'

'You have a point.'

They turned the corner, heading upwards towards the connecting corridor with the Heelstone. Theo shivered, and glanced at Korday nervously, laying his hand on his sword-hilt.

'What is it?' Korday asked quietly.

'I'm not sure. Thought I heard something.' Theo looked around at the deserted market stalls that lined the route - normally teeming with tourists, hawkers and travellers, the corridors of the Sunstone were largely deserted, except for a few odd souls scurrying along, heads down. 'What's with this place, captain? It's dead.'

'You're not far wrong,' Korday muttered.

'What?'

'Nothing. Just keep your guard up - at least until we reach the ship.'

'You feel it too, don't you? I mean, I'm not imagining things?'

'Just keep your tongue between your teeth, Theo,' Korday ordered sharply. 'Let me listen.'

Sensing that the playful exchange was over, Theo loosened his blade in its scabbard, noting that Korday already had his in his hand. Durindal's runes gleamed with an eerie blue light even in the station's well it corridor.

'I really don't like this,' Theo muttered under his breath as they walked on. He glanced furtively around as he walked. 'It was the same in the bar - nowhere near as many people, and most of them looked nervous. What's up, captain? It's never this quiet. You usually have to use your elbows to get through the crowd!'

'Theo, didn't I say -' Korday stopped in his tracks, and his free hand hauled the boy to a halt beside him.

'Alex?' Theo whispered.

This time Korday didn't correct him. Theo drew his sword.

The lights behind them began to go out, one by one.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Fourteen

As the shadows deepened, the runes along the blade of Korday's sword blazed brighter. Theo tightened his grip on the hilt of his own sword, and looked around cautiously.

'Shadows and darkness?' Korday called out into the blackness. 'You'll have to do a lot better than that.' He stood in front of Theo, and pushed the boy back towards the wall with his free hand. For once, Theo didn't complain. 'Stay behind me, and stay out of the way,' he ordered quietly.

'You think to protect the boy?' came a voice from the shadows. Cold and shrill, it cut through Theo like a knife, and his hand clutched the hilt of his sword so hard, he could feel every ridge in the binding. 'Do you fear for him? I could take him so easily, although his fear is a small thing compared to the feast that you would be.' Theo heard someone - or something - inhale deeply. 'You stink of death, and lies; of loss, and pain. It's irresistible.'

'Sorry, you're just not my type,' Korday drawled. 'Show yourself, amadan. Skulking in the shadows is a coward's game.'

The lights came back on, and blinking in the sudden glare, Theo saw a man standing in the corridor, facing Korday with a beatific smile on a handsome face. He was tall, and slender, with shoulder length fair hair, and was quite possibly the most beautiful creature Theo had ever seen.

And yet, despite the beauty, there was a madness lurking in the deepset blue eyes that chilled him to the bone.

'You think to hold me at bay with a sword, pirate?' the creature taunted, walking slowly towards Korday. It stopped just out of range of that blade, and smiled. 'Bastard son of a bastard line, a dead man walking.'

Korday shifted his stance slightly. 'Talk, as a friend of mine would say, is cheap. I know your kind, amadan. You only have what power our fear gives you. Without that, you weaken.'

It reached out a hand. 'I only want to touch you… the release I could give you would be an eternity of joy, compared to the pain you suffer.' It stepped forwards, and then moved so fast it seemed to blur. Theo had only a sense of movement, as Korday shoved him sideways, out of the line of the creature's attack, which, he realised as he hit the floor with a heavy thud, had been aimed at him, not at the captain, who'd brought his sword down against the outstretched hand. Durindal flared with a blue flame as it cut through the creature's wrist, severing the hand, which spiralled towards the floor…

…to vanish before it hit.

The creature wriggled the fingers on both hands. 'No sword can harm me,' it hissed. The classic, sharp edged features contorted into an insane malice as it took a step back. 'How can you kill what is already dead?'

'You're not dead,' Korday told it bluntly. 'You don't even exist. You're nothing more than a memory - a pitiful, disembodied concept.'

Theo, looking on from the ground, stared wild-eyed at the angelic form, which had, he noticed for the first time, a slightly translucent look to it. In places, he could see straight through it - the white robe it wore fluttered insubstantially in a non existent breeze.

'Then,' it said coldly, 'how can I do this?'

Theo screamed as he saw the creature's hand shoot out and grasp Korday's wrist; the hand that grasped the hilt of ancient, rune-engraved Durindal. 'Captain!'

Was it his imagination, or did the wispy creature look more solid, as he watched? He stared in fascinated horror at his captain, who stood calmly, facing the thing that held him -

- and smiling, as though at some private joke.

Durindal flamed blue, blinding Theo with its light. In the glow of the runesword's power, he saw Korday lift his hand, freeing himself from the amadan's grasp, and bring the sword up, and across, in a killing blow, had it landed.

In that same moment, Theo thought he saw, just for a moment, another man standing in front of him where before the captain of the Abbadon had stood. Holding Durindal aloft, this man had red-gold hair, and a sharper, aristocratic profile.

Durindal's light faded, and so did the image. In the corridor of the Sunstone, only Korday remained, a dark haired man in midnight blue and white, already sheathing his sword and offering a hand to the stunned boy. Of the angel, there was no sign.

Theo leaned against the wall, and pulled himself away from Korday's reassuring hand. 'I'm fine,' he snapped.

Korday shrugged, and walked away, heading towards the Heelstone again as though nothing had happened. After a few moments to get his composure back, Theo followed, trotting to catch up and keep pace with the older man.

'What happened back there?' he asked eventually. 'That thing…'

'It kills, or maddens, with a touch. You, I think, it would have killed,' Korday replied, without looking at him.

'But it didn't affect you,' Theo stammered. 'Why?'

Korday didn't reply.

'And for a moment - I saw…'

Korday didn't look at him. 'You saw nothing,' he said coldly.

'But - there was a man. Standing where you were. Actually, I think he looked a bit like me,' Theo pressed, jogging to keep up with his captain's increased pace. 'But about your age.'

'A trick of the light.'

'But-'

'Theo, there are any number of places on board the ship that haven't been cleaned out in decades. One more question, and you'll spend the next three weeks getting intimately acquainted with most of them. Do you understand?'

Theo pulled a face behind Korday's back. 'Yeah, I get it.'

'Theo…' the warning note in Korday's voice was unmistakable. Theo sighed. Somedays, he thought glumly, he'd swear the captain had eyes in the back of his head.

'Yeah, I understand. Captain.'

'Good. Oh, and by the way, you're grounded for the duration of this stopover. I don't want you leaving the ship.'

They'd crossed over from the Sunstone onto the Heelstone, and the lift in tension Theo had felt at reaching the comparative safety of Kane's base of operations vanished.

'That is just so unfair!' he yelped, his voice cracking back into a boyish register. 'Captain…!'

'Non-negotiable, Theo. Be thankful there isn't a ship I can put you on that's heading out of the 'Dance, or you'd be on it.'

Throwing himself onto his bed a few minutes later, in his room aboard the Abbadon, Theo pouted angrily as he stared at the ceiling. We'll see about that, he thought to himself, already planning a way to slip past the vigilance of the ship. He closed his eyes, but sleep refused to come, his head buzzing with the events of the past hour, as he replayed the scene over and over again, but coming no closer to understanding what he'd seen.

 

Kai switched off the teleos with a wave of his hand, swearing under his breath.

'Problems?' Alia asked. He looked up, noting idly that the woman seemed a little tired.

'Nothing I can't handle, my lady. What in the name of Annwn were you up to last night? You look dreadful.'

She sat down, pouring a generous glass of wine from the carafe on the table and downing it in one swallow before answering. 'Nothing. Bad dreams. I didn't sleep well.'

'Is that all?' he mocked. 'I wouldn't have thought you would be stirred by nightmares, my lady.'

'And your "nothing"?' she prompted. 'It looked to me as though that report rattled you a little.'

He grunted. 'A small matter, but an irritating one. Our people reported a couple of ships docked yesterday with the Heelstone. One of them was the Abbadon.'

'I'm only a country girl,' Alia told him, leaning back in her chair, looking more relaxed with her third glass in her hand. 'Is this important?'

'It's a mercenary ship, usually operating beyond the Mag Tuiread. Kane often uses the Geat Mercenaries to protect his interests in this area of space.' He stared over her head, out of the observation window that gave a view of the starfield outside the station, and the distant red stars that were the Mag Tuiread, just visible to the naked eye. 'She's a corsair - a destroyer sized interceptor, and a dragonship of great power. They were created over a thousand years ago - I think she's one of only three still living. Her current commander is an old acquaintance.'

'How old?' Alia asked sharply.

He looked down at her and smiled grimly.

Alia refilled her glass. 'I see.' She watched him from narrowed eyes as he stood in front of her, one hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword. 'Does this "small matter" have a name?'

'Alex Korday. Actually, he's Marius' brother.' He drew his sword, and stared into the blade. 'A terminal pain in the arse, but gifted. Rumour has it that he's never bonded with his ship - and yet, no man has ever successfully captained an unbound dragonship.' He was silent for a minute. 'Ah. He's nothing. If he'd had anything about him at all I wouldn't have been made Lord Commander - he turned down the position, preferring to run off and play pirate out in the wilderness.'

'Men who turn down positions of power make me nervous,' Alia said softly. She looked up at Kai, who still stared into the blade of his sword, as though seeking inspiration in its mirrored surface. 'It usually means they already have it, or don't need it. Either way, they bear careful watching.' She drained her glass, and poured another, grimacing as the last few drops trickled into her glass, barely filling it halfway.

'It brings their number to three,' Kai replied. He turned the sword and sheathed it with a defiant gesture. 'Three men who all have something to hide. Three men who bring the past with them. Korday captains the only unbound drakkhar in existence. Kane controls this station, and Kastchei brings with him the power of the Hunt.' He picked up the crystal carafe and threw it at the wall, watching impassively as the shards scattered over the fine Iskandan rug, glittering in the light. 'The gods work in threes, they say. For these to be here, now, smacks of more than coincidence.' His fist tightened at his side. 'All of them, with the knowledge they possess between them - ' he turned and looked down at Alia. 'Obviously, it wasn't enough to just take the bard out of the equation.' He leaned over the table, and a pass of his hand activated the teleos again. The face of the Prydwen's communications officer appeared.

'Sir?' She asked, snapping to attention.

'I need a secure link to Orcadia,' Kai snapped. 'Get me Calaitin.'

From the shadows that clustered around the edges of the docking bay, something watched the slender form of the Abbadon with interest. The ship's wards were powerful, preventing any closer approach, but from its vantage point, the watcher could see enough.

Death. Madness. Fear. Loss.

The ship reeked of it.

And of something else, something less attractive, but ideally suited to its purpose.

'If I could touch you,' the watcher whispered, 'I would know you. And knowing you, I would destroy you, and those you love.'

The ship's wards flared momentarily blue, and the watcher imitated a smile on its remembered face. 'You know I'm here, don't you? Pitiful, weak little thing - a stunted runt, your wings clipped before you were even born, to serve the needs of these pathetic creatures. And you - you worse than any of your kind - a pilotless Ship.'

The wards glowed again, and for a second, a face formed in the pale glow around the ship. The watcher took a step closer, and laughed as the wards retreated slightly

'Relax, runt. I don't want you, yet. But tell your captain to stay out of my way - he'll only save himself once with that foolish glamour that binds him. Now that I know what he his, unravelling it will be child's play.'

You will not harm those under my protection

The voice thundered through the bay, and yet the watcher knew that only he heard it. He smiled.

'Is that a challenge?' he asked. 'Then tell me your name, Ship. Tell me your name, and I will give you mine.'

Abbadon

The watcher laughed. 'Is that so? It's fitting, at least.' He stepped out into the light of the bay, summoning a residual physical presence - a semblance of his original form. The blond haired main with the beautiful face smiled up at the vessel that dwarfed the form he showed it. 'You can tell those you serve, that my name is Michael.'

The wards flared red and snaked out towards him, whiplike, but he'd already scattered the manifestation before it touched the spot where he'd stood. Only the echo of his laughter remained, taunting the ship briefly, until the wards flared again, bringing silence in the wake of their blood-red glare.

 

Chapter Fifteen

'Are you finishing with that shower anytime soon?' Vivienne asked sharply from the door to the bathroom. 'Honestly, anyone would think you're half-mermaid the amount of time you've spent in there recently.'

There was no answer but the patter of water on the steamed-up glass, so she rapped on the door impatiently. 'Oi!'

The sound of running water stopped, and the door slid open, revealing Kastchei, who simply strolled past her, through the drying field, without saying a word.

'Selfish git,' she muttered under her breath. 'You do realise we're going to be late?'

She stepped into the shower and under the jet of hot water that started at a touch of her fingers on the control panel. Relaxing under the jet, she squeaked when a hand landed on her shoulder. She whirled round, and stared indignantly into Kastchei's smirking face.

'That's not funny,' she snapped. He shrugged, and stepped back, not bothering to close the door. She watched through clouds of steam as he pulled a shirt on and tucked it into his breeches.

'It was from my perspective.'

'You always did have a warped sense of humour,' she accused, washing her hair. 'Where are we meeting Kane?'

'The pits. Seems he practices there every morning.'

'So you trust him now?' She switched off the shower with a heavy sigh, and stepped out. The tingle of the drying field left her feeling at least marginally human again, and she dressed quickly.

'I never said I trusted him, but we do need to talk.'

With her brush caught in her dark curls, she stared up at him through a tangled fringe.

'Is this about last night?' she asked point blank. He didn't say anything. 'Don't give me that look,' she snapped. 'Doesn't scare me after all those years with the-'

'Yes.'

The simple admission took her by surprise. 'Oh.'

'I'd rather not go through it twice, Vivienne. Wait until we talk to Kane.'

'I don't seem to have a choice, do I?' she asked. She sighed. 'I don't suppose you plan on telling me just what happened?'

His silence was all the answer she sensed she would ever get on the subject. 'Fine. Let's go-' she paused, staring at him.

'Something wrong?' he asked. He straightened the collar of his dark green coat.

'Nothing - if that's what you wanted to do with your hair,' she said quietly.

With a perplexed glance at her, he walked over to take a look in the mirror. A gloved hand ran over his dark auburn hair, which instead of his habitual carelessly precise tumble, was now slicked back from his forehead.

Wordlessly, he ran his fingers through it to shake it into his usual side parting, and then strode past her, shoulders straighter than she'd seen them in months, Cafall padding beside him, claws clicking on the stone and metal floor.

 

'Had enough?' Korday pressed the tip of his sword a little harder against his opponent's throat, not quite enough to draw blood.

'You made your point,' Kane growled. Korday stepped back, and allowed the bigger man to stand up. Kane picked up his sword and accepted a towel handed to him without comment by Locke. 'Thanks.' He wiped the sweat off his face and draped the towel over his bare shoulder. 'Damn it, I'd forgotten how fast you are, you skinny little bastard.'

'Want me to take a handicap next time?' Korday grinned. 'I could hop…' He wasn't even breathing hard.

'Laugh it up while you can. Next time, we do it my way. Prancing around with a sabre was never my forte.'

'Don't take it so hard, Kane. Only two men could ever beat me with a sword, and one of them's been dead for longer than I care to remember.' He untied his hair from its confining ponytail and ran his fingers through it. 'You lasted a little longer this time, I thought.' He looked at Locke quizzically.

'Five minutes 23 seconds.' She deadpanned.

'Ten seconds longer than last time,' Taran said straight-faced.

Kane glared at all of them. 'Damn underlings. One of you want to try him for size?'

Taran backed off, laughing, hands raised to ward off the idea. 'Not a chance, I wouldn't last five seconds.'

Locke grinned. 'Make it knives, I'll take him.'

'Having trouble, Kane?'

Locke turned, her hand dropping to her knife hilt as she did so, to see Kastchei lounging in the entrance to the pit. The large red-eyed hellhound sat at his side, glaring balefully at her. It probably wasn't personal, she thought, looking at the wagging tail: glowing red eyes didn't give it much option.

'No problems,' Kane replied, a little forcefully. 'Just a practice.'

'Looked to me like he didn't need any,' Kastchei drawled. 'Are you going to introduce us?'

'Why, are you looking for a date?' Locke interjected, unable to resist. The intimidating look she got she shrugged off. Kane could be scarier after a night on the tiles.

'Captain Alex Korday of the Corsair class drakkhar "Abbadon",' Korday interjected smoothly. He bowed, not taking his gaze off Kastchei as he did. 'I've heard quite a lot about you, over the years. By one name or another.'

'You've used one or two yourself,' Kastchei replied. 'Kastchei Bes-mertny.' He offered his hand, which was accepted firmly. 'I didn't recognise the name, but I never forget a face. The Battle of Iskander, yes? You led the Geat mercenaries in the final assault.'

Kane raised his visible eyebrow. 'You never told me you fought in that campaign.'

Korday shrugged. 'Before your time. And you never asked. Ganelon of Maganza, wasn't it?' he asked Kastchei, who nodded.

'One name's as good as another,' Kastchei replied.

'I can think of a couple for you,' Kane growled. 'What are you doing here, Kit? This is a private area. Invitation only.'

'I have an invitation,' Kastchei said smoothly. He looked at Locke, who smiled thinly.

Kane glared at her briefly, then sighed. 'I see. All right, what do you want?'

'A talk, but this is hardly the place, is it?' Kastchei looked up into the arena stands pointedly. 'Unless you'd rather fight it out right now? Get it over and done with? Or has the good captain here worn you out? At your age, perhaps you should take it easy.'

'Smart-ass little punk,' Kane snorted. 'You don't change, do you? Never could resist just letting your mouth run off at the wrong moment. It's still your biggest weakness. That and your tendency to overthink everything.'

He threw the towel to Locke, and shifted his sword into his right hand. 'I'm thinking I could use someone to kick the shit out of, after being on the receiving end of one of Alex's rare bouts of self-expression.'

'Sorry,' Korday drawled from where he was leaning against the wall, wiping his sword down. 'I needed to blow off a bit of steam this morning.'

'It's called "showing off",' Locke snapped.

Korday grinned. 'That too.'

Kastchei drew his sword, clearing his coat in the same fluid movement, dropping it to the ground. Taran moved in silently to pick it up, and scuttled out of the way, almost bumping into Vivienne who'd been leaning, out of sight, behind the archway. 'Don't worry, Kane, I'll take it easy. I don't want to kill you just yet - somehow, this doesn't feel like the right time. But I'll let you know when.'

'Please do. If anything keeps me awake at nights, it's the thought of being killed without it being in the proper context.' 'Sarcasm is cheap,' Kastchei taunted.

Kane smiled grimly. 'That wasn't sarcasm.'

'Even I'm getting overwhelmed by the testosterone in the air,' Korday muttered to Locke, as the two men squared off.

'I think he's just got a few issues to work off,' Vivienne said, standing beside them. Locke gave her a warm smile.

'Bad night?' she asked the other woman. Vivienne sighed heavily.

'Yes. No. Possibly. When he's this cranky, I just tend to keep out of the way.'

'I have days like that,' Locke said with feeling.

'My brother used to have the same effect on me,' Korday added. 'Although my first officer says the same about me. Can't think why.'

Locke exchanged a conspiratorial look with Vivienne, but said nothing. The clash of steel on steel drew their attention back to the arena floor.

'Now that had to hurt,' Korday commented, watching Kastchei parry an overhead swing from Kane that almost knocked the slighter man off his feet. 'He's good. Fast on his feet, good co-ordination, not too sloppy recovering. A bit overconfident though. Watch - he's trying to blindside Kane.'

Kastchei's blade slid past Kane's guard, cutting down towards Kane's left side. The larger man however had anticipated the move, and sidestepped, leaving Kastchei overextended. Kastchei's recovery was something of a scramble as he parried a flurry of blows, unable to disengage quickly. He finally managed to retreat out of range and recompose himself, and looked, to Vivienne's eyes, furious - with himself or with Kane, she wasn't sure.

Probably both.

'Ah. Told you,' Korday said smugly. 'He's wise to that. Loves to sucker an opponent in with that one.'

'Nice try,' Kane sneered. 'Is that all you've got?' He beat back Kastchei's blade, leaving a slight opening, hoping the other man would go for it. Predictably, Kastchei took the bait, with a fast lunge. Kane's sword flicked over the extended blade, and sliced the top of Kastchei's arm. 'First blood,' he said softly. 'Want to call it quits?'

'Station rules,' Kastchei said coldly, pulling back. 'First to three?'

Overhearing this, Vivienne turned to Locke. 'First to three hits?' she whispered. Locke shook her head.

'Not exactly. First to three straight cuts.'

'As in "in a row"?'

Locked shrugged. 'Last time I checked.' She placed a restraining hand on Vivienne's arm. 'Don't. Let them get it out of their system. A little blood spilled now will do them both the world of good, if you ask me. Your boy's spoiling for a fight and if Kane wants to indulge, I'm tempted to let him.'

'Like you could stop him,' Korday scoffed.

'Blow it out your ear, Alex,' Locke snapped.

Korday smirked, and sheathed his sword. 'But I'm not wrong,' he said evenly. He leaned back against the wall, arms folded, standing on one leg, the other foot braced against the wall, his head lowered so that his hair covered most of his face, for all the world as if he was ignoring the fight.

'You're slowing down,' Kastchei taunted as a heavy swing from Kane whistled past his head. The tip of his own blade flashed and scored a red line across Kane's left cheek. Kastchei side-stepped the riposte with minimalistic ease. 'More bodyguards?' he asked provocatively, with a quick nod in the direction of the group by the archway.

Kane just grunted.

'I suppose you need all the help you can get; must be difficult sleeping with one eye open when you've only got one left,' Kastchei continued in a lazy drawl.

'Yeah, but it also means I only see half as much of the smirking little wise-ass pricks I keep running into.' Kane's sword flashed upward. 'You know, if you were as fast with your sword as you are with your mouth, I wouldn't be able to do this.'

<move>

Vivienne gasped, seeing the thin trail of blood on Kastchei's slashed shirt. She felt Locke, beside her, shift her stance uneasily, and heard her sharp intake of breath.

Something changed in a fraction of a second between the two men. A subtle change in stance, in attitude. In the way both shifted the grip on their weapons. In the way they looked at each other.

'Shit. They're really going to kill each other,' she heard Korday mutter softly. The mercenary moved fast, crossing the arena floor in a couple of long strides that took him to the fighters. Even as their swords flickered towards each other, this time with deadly intent, another blade was in play.

And two swords lay on the rumpled sand.

'Enough.'

Korday didn't shout, and there wasn't a trace of bardic Voice in his tones, but the command brooked no rebellion. Vivienne watched the tableau, holding her breath. If Kane and Kit both decided to move against him, Korday wouldn't have stood a chance. But he stood there between them, totally relaxed, already lowering his blade and sheathing it, expecting obedience.

Waiting.

It was Kane who moved first, bowing, silently, before picking up his sword. He walked away without a word, and into the changing rooms.

Vivienne let out the breath she'd been holding, her gaze fixed on Kastchei's face. Too far away to see his eyes, but fearing the explosion that was bound to follow any attempt to bring him to heel.

It didn't come.

Although she couldn't see Korday's face at all, something must have passed between the two men. Kastchei's brief nod of acceptance was more forced than Kane's, but he too picked up his sword and left, following Kane. After a moment, Korday turned and followed them.

For one brief instant, she was reminded sharply of Elphin. At least, until he caught sight of her staring, open-mouthed, and dropped her a very slight wink as he walked past.

'One of these days, he's going to screw up big time, trying something like that,' Locke muttered under her breath as she and Vivienne followed the men into the showers. 'I really hope I'm there to see it.'

'I've got one of my own,' Vivienne grinned, 'trust me on this - when they screw up, close enough to see it is usually too close to the fallout.'

Locke sighed. 'I know. I know. But there's just something deeply satisfying about watching a complacent, terminal over-achiever landing on his arse.'

Vivienne yanked her back before they reached the changing room. 'I can't fault the sentiment, but do you think we could avoid the sight of three of them naked for now?'

Vivienne sat back on one of the benches, watching Kastchei intently as he spoke. Kane sat opposite with his hands laced behind his head, his good eye closed. Korday, she noticed, faded into the background, not even looking at any of the group, although she had the impression he was still listening intently.

'The ship's lobotomised - even further than usual. He's creating nothing but a bare shell. A template.'

'I'm no expert on organic systems, Kit - I know he's up to something with this, but I've no idea what. You forget: in my day, we still regarded the ships as little more than mathematical constructs.' Kane looked over to Korday. 'Alec?'

'It's a principle used by the vat-masters when creating constructs - to create a blank template, upon which you can impress a personality matrix. Usually, when creating a drakkhar, they allow the personality matrix to develop upon a basic template. That's your basis for the intelligent systems of ships like Prydwen, or the newer Setanta. It gives you a measure of control over the end result.' The captain looked up at them and smiled grimly. 'If you allow the personality to develop without those basic protocols, you get a rather more individualistic vessel that's less amenable to control, but capable of rather more individual action.'

'The corsair class?' Locke asked.

Korday nodded, his smile broader, as though reminiscing. 'They weren't an unqualified success, it has to be said: but then, they used a greater degree of dragon biodata in creating them. Corsairs can go where lesser ships cannot, and take tighter lines through the void. One or two can even match the remaining dragons for their abilities to manipulate space and time.'

'A dangerous experiment,' Kastchei interjected. 'In an unbound universe.' He gave Korday a sharp gaze. 'You know a great deal for a mercenary.'

'I originally trained as a bio-engineer,' Korday replied. 'Trust me, I never planned on becoming what I am.' He stared over Kastchei's head. 'Simon must have learned more on board the Abbadon than I thought. What I don't understand is what he can do once he's bound the amadan to the ship.'

'It's not what he wants,' Kastchei explained. 'It was Alia's idea. And it's not just the Amadan - there are seven of those stasis chambers on board, and now that I know what's in them, we've got real problems. She's given D'Alembert the means to transfer not just their consciousness, but their abilities to the ships. There are no weapons systems - because the ship will become whatever binds with it.'

'So we have to stop it, right?' Vivienne said. She looked at each man in turn: Kastchei, waiting patiently watching the reactions. Kane's thoughtful frown. Korday's studied disinterest. 'This thing kills with a touch - and spreads terror where it goes. Can you imagine that on a planetary stage?'

'And this is only a distraction,' Kastchei said, cutting her short. 'Weapons and warships are not the real problem, but only a symbol. This won't be a war fought by such things.'

'There's a fleet massing around Orcadia that says otherwise,' Korday said softly. 'And a distraction that kills you is still going to leave you dead.'

'The fleet's just there as a smokescreen,' Kastchei scoffed. 'Throw yourself against it if you like, but the real danger will come from what it protects. What your brother and Taliesin have walked right into.'

'Alex is right, Kit,' Kane broke in. He ran a hand over his cropped hair. 'The problem with a feint is that in the hands of a skilled swordsman, it can always be turned into a genuine attack if you're stupid enough to let your guard down. Right now, our guard's down. Simon's ambitions are as much a danger as whatever's happening on Orcadia. That amadan is as much a threat as the Prydwen sitting out there. Trying to outthink an opponent who's already a couple of moves ahead won't get us anywhere.'

'And if I have those moves?' Kastchei asked. 'What then?'

Kane rubbed idly at the patch covering his left eye. He looked at Korday, who said nothing, but looked down, hiding a smile. 'That depends.'

'The problem is that you've got two parties, both of whom are using the same means to achieve very different ends,' Kastchei said. 'Kai's easy - he wants the ships D'Alembert can give him, but he also wants to draw something - or someone - out into the open by getting them. Who - or what - I've no idea. Apparently he wasn't that confiding in my source. Whatever it is, he needs more than the Prydwen to take it.'

'And D'Alembert?' Vivienne asked.

'I think Kane can answer that one,' Kastchei said coldly, looking at him. 'Simon used to work for you, didn't he? What was it he found out, Kane?'

'Answer it yourself, Kit,' Kane replied evenly. 'Half the crap hidden away on this station has your fingerprints on it - I'd have been away from here years ago if I hadn't had to clean up the mess you left behind.'

'You weren't quite so squeamish when your own life depended on it,' Kastchei retorted. 'Your own hands are just as dirty, despite the amount of blood you always loved washing them in.'

'Am I the only one starting to feel as though we skipped a bit?' Locke asked, raising a hand.

'They worked together,' Vivienne whispered. 'At a guess I'd say a few questionable items of Homeworld technology made their way here during the rebellion.'

'More than a few,' Kane said coldly, glaring at Kastchei. 'The gods help us, more than a few. Your boy here was never too scrupulous about using some of our race's less humanitarian technology - or about selling it in order to get the funds needed for his own purposes. Allied with the rather peculiar mix of esoteric science that passes itself off as "magic" here, it was a deadly combination. I had to spend years setting this place up as a clearing house for all kinds of shit, just to get some control over it. You really don't want to know what I've had to compromise to pull in some of the horrors we unleashed during those years.'

'Newsflash, cyclops: I don't care,' Kastchei snarled. 'What's done is done.'

'Really?' Kane stood up and drew himself up to his full height. 'You arrogant little bastard...'

'If you two don't mind?' Korday interrupted. Again, Vivienne saw both Kane and Kastchei back down. Again, she was sharply reminded of the way Elphin could bring the council to heel when he wanted to - that air of authority which would not - could not - be gainsaid by those under him.

Mordred's bastard sons had both grown up at court, she reasoned. It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that he picked up some of that along the way…

Except that Marius had never had that air of restrained, perfect command that Korday wielded as though he'd been born to it. The scruffy spacer of the day before was gone - the man in midnight blue and white with the fighting griffins on his collar could have easily as stepped out of Gwynedd's council chamber as off a spaceship.

Not griffins…

She peered at the collar device again as the men continued arguing. One griffin, twined in battle with a serpentine dragon.

She knew the device, but couldn't remember the significance. She sighed inwardly, and made a mental note to ask Devin, later.

'The amadan is strong, and intelligent. It's playing with us all,' Korday said. 'It even dared to attack me and one of my crew last night, and then followed us back to the ship. It won't be easily dealt with, and if that's not enough, right now we're caught between too many sides - Kai, D'Alembert and the amadan. No-one wins a fight on that many fronts. Especially if you two insist on fighting each other. If we factor in the situation on Orcadia, we've got four fronts. I suggest we work out a way to take out a few of them, before anything else.'

'Easier said than done,' Kastchei said quietly.

'Oh come on,' Vivienne snapped, more than a little annoyed at the atmosphere. 'If you three can't come up with something between you, you all want shooting. Korday's a brilliant strategist, Kit used to be something of a devious bastard in his time when he was on form, and from what I hear, you - ' she pointed at Kane - 'weren't too shabby in political and battlefield mayhem 101.'

'Blackest of black ops operatives, and something of a legend in his time,' Kastchei said smoothly. 'At least, if you discount a distressing tendency to shoot colleagues in the back.'

Kane ignored the jibe. 'Alex?'

Vivienne watched the face of the pirate closely, but his expression could have rivalled Kit's for shuttered inscrutability.

'What did you have in mind?' he asked eventually, although Vivienne had the suspicion the question was more for their benefit than for his.

'A little distraction should do,' Kane replied, his single eye fixed on Korday's face. The unspoken exchange between the two men almost crackled. For once, it was Korday who looked away first, turning lightly, and striding over to the archway to stare into the empty arena, his arms folded in front of him.

'It's a hell of a thing you're asking, Kane, if this is nothing but a minor skirmish. You know how much-'

'I wouldn't ask if I thought it wasn't serious, Alex, you know that. Right now, Kai's probably the only variable we can influence. I need bait, and you're the best I've got.'

'I might also be what he's trying to finesse out of this situation, had you considered that, my friend?' Korday asked softly. 'Would you risk one of your more powerful pieces this early in the game, for what might be nothing more than a simple exchange?'

'The balance of power in this sector is going to change rapidly, Alex. There's a fleet massing around Orcadia, which is only a seven day hike via the void from here - less, if they take a tighter line. And from here to the Mag Tuiread is only two days. Forgive me, your highness, but I think the time is long past for dissembling. Alex Korday is of limited use in this situation. Aelric dan Cerdic, Margrave of the Hurot Alliance however, is worth his weight in gold.'

Vivienne choked slightly. 'Aelric?' Looking at the device on his collar, she now remembered where she'd seen it before - in the Bards' records of the Battle of Badon. The symbol - outlawed for over a thousand years - of the House of Cynric. She stared wide eyed at Korday. 'Nearly twenty years… All this time we though… why that lying little toad! - I'm going to thump Marco so hard when I get hold of him…'

Korday turned and looked at her out of one blue eye. 'Don't be too hard on Nate - neither of us wanted it widely known that we were still alive and kicking. Letting Mordred think we were just recent by-blows of some drunken tumble headed off some awkward questions.'

Kastchei was looking at him in a more approving light. 'Aelric and Neachtan - Winifreda's sons by Mordred?' He laughed. 'Well well, I've got to hand it to Marius, I had no suspicions.'

'We've had practice,' Korday said laconically. He glared at Kane. 'You do realise I'll have to bring my crew in on this - I won't have my officers compromised without warning.'

'And Marius was the one who always told Elphin there was nothing worth worrying about beyond the Mag Tuiread,' Vivienne drawled. 'No wonder you didn't want to hang around long after the war.'

Korday shrugged. 'It could have led to some conflicts of interest. I was formally adopted by my grandfather, and when he died in the battle of Mag Tuiread, that left what remained of our people under my leadership. Thanks to Mordred and Morgaine, we've been a hunted people for centuries.'

'The Prydwen fought in that battle, as I recall,' Kastchei mused.

Korday grinned wolfishly, and for once his smile didn't reach his eyes. 'Payback's a bitch. I've wanted a piece of that ship for a long time. And of the Lord Commander. I could never prove it, but I'm sure he was in charge of that slaughter.' A raised hand stalled Vivienne's protest. 'I know - he was supposedly out of favour at the time, but I never actually bought that act. I did warn both Elphin and Taliesin, if you recall. Once a traitor, always a traitor.'

'Don't get cocky, Alex, 'Locke snapped. 'The Abbadon can't take on a capital ship all by herself - a destroyer sized corsair wouldn't last five minutes against a dreadnought, regardless of those holo-shows they keep playing on the public-net.'

'There are ways,' Korday replied enigmatically. She just huffed at him, and his smile widened momentarily.

'Are you really enough of a thorn to keep Kai occupied for a while?' Kastchei asked. Korday nodded.

'He'd be happy enough to tangle with Alex Korday, given that I damn near cost him his position during the civil war a few years back. If he makes the connection between Alex Korday and Aelric dan Cerdic, trust me, he'll really want a piece of me. I damn near wiped out a good third of his fleet during the Cath Mag Tuiread - I think he'll take the bait.' He smiled winningly. 'It'll be fun to play them at their own game, don't you think? They've been playing us since this started, one way or another.'

'That leaves D'Alembert to you,' Kastchei said, turning to Kane. 'That's if you think you can handle it…'

'Don't try needling me into a declaration of intent, Kit. It doesn't work,' Kane drawled. 'In this case, you're on your own, I have work to do. In case you hadn't noticed - which, given that sneaking around committing acts of burglary is all you've done since you got here, I assume you haven't - the station's almost close to shutting down.'

Locke nodded, in response to Vivienne's unspoken question. 'Take a look around when you leave here - especially on the other stones and the commercial zones. It's not so obvious here, but we've been more than two weeks trying to put a lid on this situation, the dockers are refusing to work some areas, ships are diverting to Iskander or Faisan, and the syndics are getting nervous.'

'Nervous?' Korday grinned. 'Want me to talk to them? I can probably up that to outright terror in about three minutes…'

'That long?' Kastchei asked lazily. The two men exchanged knowing grins.

'I'll put Taran onto it,' Kane said eventually. He looked over at his subordinate. 'But don't take any chances, kid.'

Taran bowed. 'I won't. You can depend on me.'

'He can take Devin with him,' Vivienne suggested. 'He's wily enough to cook something up.'

Kane looked at her sharply. 'You didn't bring him with you, I notice.'

It was Kastchei who replied. 'I don't have to let the Bards know everything that I'm doing.'

'Sensible,' Korday added. 'They have their own loyalties, and their actions don't always benefit those close to them.'

The cold note in his voice almost made Vivienne shiver. It wasn't lost on Kastchei, she noticed, whose blue eyes narrowed.

'You have some issues with the Order?' he asked.

'Let's just say that there has been some blood spilled on both sides over the years,' Korday replied smoothly. He turned to Taran. 'I wouldn't be too forthcoming with the bard, if I were you.'

Vivienne stared at him. 'He's your brother's closest friend…' she began, a little indignantly. 'Marius trained him.'

Korday fixed his piercing blue eyes on her. 'Really? Then all the more reason not to trust him.'

Kastchei smiled appreciatively. 'You know, I get the feeling that you'd trust your brother in this as little as you trust his lover.'

'You'd be right,' Korday told him bluntly.

 

Devin tried to stand as still as he could, but under the disapproving gaze of the Lord Commander of the Dragon Legion, Knight of the Rose, His Grace the Duke of Orcadia Kaiwyn ap Eachtar, this wasn't easy. He kept having to resist the urge to shuffle.

'If they don't suspect you, why are you not with them?' Kai asked.

'I told you,' Devin replied, as carefully as he could. 'It's not so much about trust. Both of them prefer working with Taliesin - with him gone, I'm just an outsider. This Kastchei wouldn't trust his own shadow.'

'He trusts the woman,' Kai pointed out reasonably.

Devin sneered. 'As much perhaps as any man trusts the woman he's bedding. She's Taliesin's creature to the bone, however.'

'Maybe Taliesin has asked her to set a leash upon this man?' Kai mused. He waved his hand. 'No matter. Your failure however to overcome this does not please me, Starkadr. As a bard, this should not be beyond your abilities.'

'It isn't,' Devin replied. 'I just need time. And perhaps, a small incentive?'

Kai turned away from him, hands clasped behind his back, and stared out of the viewscreen of the council room of the Prydwen, which faced the empty sea of stars. The Mag Tuiread had been magnified on the screen, and the vast pillars of plasma performed a graceful, fiery ballet against the backdrop of space.

'A sacrifice - small, but significant?' Kai asked, half to himself. 'I might be able to arrange something suitable.'

The teleos on the table chimed, and when Kai showed little intention of answering it, Devin passed his hand over the orb. 'Yes?'

'A message for Lord Kai,' said the officer in the image - Prydwen's Second, Lady Sahvera. 'From Orcadia.'

Devin looked up at Kai, who turned and nodded.

'Put it through,' he ordered. He looked again at Kai. 'Do you want me to stay?' he asked.

Kai shook his head. 'The less you know, the less you can divulge.'

Devin bowed. In the orb, the image of one of the Calaitin was forming.

'Don't go far,' Kai told him, as he opened the door. 'This won't take long. And then, I'll see what we can give Lord Kastchei as a small token of our goodwill.'

 

To Be Continued…

Notes: Thanks to BK Willis for the loan of Cain, the bad-ass Time-lord Regulator from the Desert of Fear Round Robin - hopefully, I'm not mangling his creation too much - and also for encouragment and feedback. Half the pithy one-liners are probably his, but I'm not going to tell you which ones. So nyah… ;-)