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Lord Kenarbin cut a splendid figure as he stepped out onto the dock, and knew it. He was tall and trim, strikingly handsome, with medium-length silver hair curling over the tops of his ears and piercing blue eyes that commanded the attention of all who fell under their gaze. His strong, slightly bony nose suggested Hazar blood, while his smooth, swarthy complexion implied a complex genetic heritage. In his ninety-seventh year, he looked as virile and vigorous as a man half his chronological age.
Kenarbin carried himself with a diplomat's aplomb and a drill sergeant's precision. His shiny black knee boots, formfitting white breeches, and gold-trimmed deep blue tunic were accented by the diagonal red sash draped across his torso, signifying his Imperial mandate. His features automatically assumed a familiar, well-practiced mien of amiable determination and boundless self-confidence. He paused and stared into the mid distance for a few moments in order to let the swarm of media imagers record his arrival.
Aside from the gaggle of media reps and the cluster of official greeters, both human and native, there was not a lot to see. His Cruiser had splashed down in a broad, sluggish river, brown and oilythe local Mississippi or Amazon, he supposed. The dun-colored landscape offered little in the way of vegetation or relief, and the chill, steady wind sweeping in from the river felt unfriendly and forbidding. The sky was cloudless but yellowed from its cargo of dust and debris, and the single cold star provided a weak, unflattering orange radiance.
In the distance, the dark towers and crenellated walls of the city looked medieval, and the smaller structures dappling the plain could have been the huts and hovels of serfs. A patina of age clung to the placea reminder of the weary millennia of experience boasted by this civilization, which had achieved star travel when humans were still scrimmaging with Neanderthals and mammoths. Yet it was this world that had been conquered and occupied by the upstart humans and their burgeoning Empirean outcome emphasized by the sheltering canopy of military vehicles that patrolled the ugly sky above.
Denastri, he thought. Well, he'd seen worse.
Kenarbin took it all in, then turned to face his welcoming committee and offered them a hearty smile. It was met by unsteady grins from the humans and the blank, impassive gaze of the indigsEmpire slang for indigenous species. The Denastri, he had been told, were not a demonstrative race, and the expressions on their alien faces might have meant anything at all, or nothing.
We are not welcome here.
The unavoidable thought did not trouble Kenarbin unduly. Humans weren't really welcome in most places they went. It didn't matter. The Empire was here, and it was here to stay. It was Kenarbin's job to get the locals to accept that immutable fact. They don't have to like us, he reminded himself, and we don't have to like them.
Lord Kenarbin had been coming to places like this for more than half a century, representing the Empire with skill and imagination. In the process, he had become something of a legend, having pulled Imperial fat from fires that might have consumed lesser negotiators. His reputation was well and justly earned, and if the job had become familiar from repetition, it remained a point of pride with him to do it to the best of his considerable ability. These days, Emperors used him sparingly, recognizing that his very presence magnified the significance of any mission on which he embarked: Kenarbin was here because Denastri was important, and Denastri was important because Kenarbin was here.
Three years earlier, in a swift and relatively bloodless little war, the Imperial Navy had smashed the small, antique Denastri fleet, putting an abrupt end to thirty thousand years of conflict within the minor grouping of stars known to Terrans as the McGowan Cluster. While the local tides swept endlessly back and forth between the Denastri and their neighbors, a millennium of relentless human expansion had finally brought the Terran Empire to the doorstep of the McGowan Cluster, 1053 light-years from Earth, and henceforth the locals would have to behave themselves. The backwater world of Denastri, and everything on it or under itparticularly the latternow belonged to the Empire. His Imperial Highness Charles V had decreed peace, and peace there would be.
Some of the locals had refused to believe or accept this turn of events, and even the presence of a division of Imperial Marines had failed to convince the holdouts. If anything, the sputtering insurgency had picked up steam in the preceding year, making life uncomfortable and dangerous for the Terrans who had come here for the sake of Imperial power and corporate profits.
The indigs, in any case, were a fractious lot, split three ways and as eager to slaughter each other as they were their human overlords. Instead of meekly bowing before the overwhelming might of an Empire that spanned two thousand light-years and encompassed 2673 worlds with a population exceeding 3 trillion, some of them remained determined to fight on, heedless of the consequences for themselves or their lackluster little world. Kenarbin had come to reason with them.
Sanjit Blagodarski, the Imperial Governor, stepped forward and extended his right hand. Kenarbin clasped it in both of his.
"Welcome to Denastri, Lord Kenarbin," said the Governor.
"Thank you, Governor. Good to see you again, Sandy. You're looking well."
His first lie, less than a minute after setting foot on the planet. In fact, Blagodarski looked awful. Drawn and frazzled, he seemed to have aged twenty years during the ten since they had last met. The Governor shrugged off the obvious falsehood with a weak smile and introduced his Imperial Secretary, a Level XII Dexta functionary named Freya Benitez, and the commanding officer of the Occupation Task Force, General Steven Ohashi. The general gave Kenarbin a crisp, military nod along with a firm handshake. "Glad you're here, milord," said Ohashi. That, in itself, struck Kenarbin as an ominous note; Marines were seldom happy to see diplomats on their turf.
"And now," said Blagodarski, "it is my privilege to present the Premier of Denastri. Honored Premier, may I present Lord Kenarbin?"
The alien stepped forward and extended a four-fingered hand, which Kenarbin took in his. Its flesh felt cold."
Vilcome to our furled," said the Premier, with obvious effort. "
Thank you, Honored Premier," Kenarbin replied as he stared into the dark, vertical slits of the alien's eyes. The creature was vaguely humanoidtwo arms, two legs, nearly as tall as Kenarbin. But its face was narrow and noseless, with large, drooping, triangular ears, sallow skin, a sharp, pointed chin, and a mouth that would have looked at home on a rainbow trout. The vertical almond-shaped eyes seemed to be all pupil, and looked like the entrances to shadowy, unexplored caverns. From a narrow bony crest at the top of its head sprouted a long shank of blue-black hair, braided and bound with thin colored threads. The Premier's clothing consisted of a belted saffron-colored robe that fell nearly to the ground.
Kenarbin released the Premier's hand and touched a stud on his tunic, activating the translation software on the computer pad in his pocket. "Honored Premier," he said, "I bring sincere and heartfelt greetings from His Imperial Highness, Emperor Charles V." He paused to let the Premier's own pad translate his words into the fluid tonal language of the Denastri, then continued.
"The Emperor has asked me to convey his deep personal gratitude for your service to the Empire, and to your world. He expresses his confidence that, working together, we shall restore peace and prosperity to his loyal subjects on the rich and beautiful world of Denastri."
He paused again as the Premier absorbed the translation. Kenarbin studied the Premier's face carefully but could detect no identifiable reaction. After a moment, nictitating membranes closed in from the sides of the Premier's eyes in an approximation of a blink. Then the Premier spoke in a flowing, almost musical passage that was pleasant but incomprehensible to human ears.
The computer rendered the translation in a soft, precise, androgynous voice. "You are mostly kind to be here, generous lord," it said. "The words of Imperial Highness Fifthborn Charles are registered in deep appreciation by this humble Thirdborn. Peace and prosperity inspire all to high wishfulness. It is a goodness."
Kenarbin frowned and furrowed his brow. He had been warned that the translation software was still a work-in-progress, but he had hoped for something better than this.
"A goodness, indeed, Honored Premier," Kenarbin said. "I look forward to working with you to make it so."
"Yes," the Premier responded. "Work will make good. We will build again that which has fallen and returnunknown wordto Denastri and the felicitations of Fifthborn Charles and his grasping Empire. Yes."
Kenarbin glanced at the Governor, who tilted his head a little and offered a wan smile. "You'll get used to it, milord," he said.
"I think I know what he's saying," Kenarbin said. "I just wish I could be sure that he knows what I'm saying."
Blagodarski shrugged. "We manage," he said. "For the most part. We should be on our way now, milord. We'll have you safely into the Compound in a few minutes. It's not wise to linger too long in an exposed position like this."
"It isn't? Why not?"
"Because we make too good a target, milord," General Ohashi explained.
"It's not as bad as it sounds," Blagodarski added hastily.
"The hell it isn't," Ohashi mumbled under his breath. The Governor gave him a sharp, reproving glance, but Ohashi looked away, focusing his gaze on the far side of the river, as if searching for snipers.
Kenarbin nodded. "I see," he said. "In that case, gentlemen, ladies, Honored Premier, perhaps we should continue our discussion in the Compound. I look forward to seeing your capital city, Honored Premier. I understand that it is older than any on Earth."
"Earth is young," the Premier agreed. "Denastri is blessed with the continuing wisdom of all our time. Perhaps you will learnunknown wordfrom us, Lord Kenarbin. A goodness."
"Undoubtedly," said Kenarbin. "A goodness."
The party began moving along the dock. Kenarbin noticed that the dock was flanked by squads of armed, helmeted Marines, who snapped to attention as he passed. Ahead, surrounding a small fleet of limo skimmers, the Marines were accompanied by what appeared to be native Denastri troops, hefting Terran plasma rifles. They were noticeably taller than the Premier and their skins were more orange than yellow.
"Fourth- and Fifthborns," Blagodarski said as they walked. "Warrior caste."
Kenarbin nodded. "Fine-looking troops," he said to the Premier, who seemed momentarily confused by the comment and didn't respond immediately.
After a few moments, the Premier said something that the computer rendered as "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
Kenarbin, surprised, looked at Blagodarski. "The software has trouble with cliches," the Governor explained. "Garbage in, garbage out, I suppose. Not that what you said was garbage, milord."
"Perish the thought," Kenarbin replied with a chuckle.
At that instant, a dazzling burst of intense white light blinded him. A split second later, he was deafened by the thunderous crack of a concussion device. Stunned and all but senseless, Kenarbin felt hands grabbing at him, clutching his arms, and dragging him, then lifting him. He flailed out uselessly and shouted something equally useless, then felt himself being thrown bodily into what must have been the backseat of one of the limo skimmers. Someone shoved him down onto the floor of the vehicle, and he felt it lifting and moving.
Security, he thought. They're getting me out of here.
Sound and sight gradually returned. He tried to turn over and push himself up, but found himself being pushed back down against the floor. "What's happening?" he demanded, his own words sounding faint and distant. He could hear no response, and saw nothing but a blurred smudge of maroon carpeting, an inch from his nose.
Kenarbin calmed himself. There had been other attempts on other worlds, and he knew the routine. Security people would treat him like a sack of highly valuable potatoes until they were certain that the threat had passed. Annoying but necessary. He could hear the high-pitched whine of the skimmer now, competing with the ringing in his ears. He wondered if the Governor and the Premier were safe.
Minutes went by, and he felt the lurching, darting progress of the skimmer. It seemed to him that they ought to have reached the Compound by then. He managed to twist around a little and turned his head to look up. He expected to see burly Marines on the seat above him. Instead, he found himself looking into the narrow orange-tinted face of one of the Denastri warriors.
"What's happening?" he asked again. "Where are you taking me?" The Denastri offered no response. Possibly, he had no translation device and didn't understand.
Kenarbin again tried to push himself up from the floor, but the warrior rudely shoved him back down. The first tickle of fear and suspicion began to dance at the edges of his mind.
"Dammit, what the hell is going on here?"
The Denastri leaned forward a little and stared down at him. The alien eyes looked placid and unsympathetic.
"You is ours," it said in Empire English.
"What? What do you mean by that?"
"Vord is 'hostage,' yes?" the warrior asked.
Comprehension flooded into Lord Kenarbin in a cold, unwelcome wave."Yes," he said at last, "that's the word."
The sun glared in Norman Mingus's face, bright enough to be annoying, even through the polarized panoramic dome. Poised just above the irregular peaks on the rim of Shackleton Crater, its unrelenting radiance was an imposition on an old man's eyes and gave Mingus yet another reason to resent the necessity of these semiannual excursions to the South Pole of Luna. He envied Charles, sitting opposite him, twenty meters away, on the far side of the three-tiered circular amphitheater where the Imperial Oversight Committee was pleased to hold court. The solar inferno was comfortably positioned behind the young Emperor's right shoulder, and he had to face only the less constant, if much closer, fires of angry Parliamentarians.
Ninety degrees to Mingus's right, Lord Nepali looked characteristically haughty, as befitted the Chairman of the Council of Lords; and ninety degrees to his left, Prime Minister Edith Singh looked typically harried, as befitted the leader of a popular assembly facing elections in four months. Arrayed to her left, curving around the table until they collided with the Imperial retinue flanking Charles, various Government ministers were busy consulting with their aides, camped in the second and third tiers behind the main table. Seated to Singh's immediate right, Minority Leader Jimmy Karno, florid-faced and combustible, had been coming to these meetings for almost as long as Mingus, and deftly rode herd on the squabbling minority MPs strung out to his right.
Mingus's own retinue was small; he preferred to travel light. Loyal, steadfast, encyclopedic Hiroshi Kapok, his Executive Assistant Secretary, sat on his right, and on his left, his Assistant Secretary for Administration, fussy, grandmotherly Theodora Quisp. Behind them sat a handful of superfluous aides, ready and excessively eager to provide assistance in the unlikely event that Mingus should require any. He had been attending these meetings for forty-four years, ever since he became Secretary of the Department of Extraterrestrial Affairs back in 3176, and he knew the drill. He was here to serve as a target, nothing more; a dartboard at which angry and ambitious MPs could fling their missiles. Mingus accepted the necessity but didn't enjoy it. The only good thing about the Imperial Oversight Committee meetings was that they gave him the opportunity to spend a day in the buoyant ease of one-sixth gravity. It was a minor perk, true, but at 133 years of age, Mingus appreciated it.