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Chapter 1: War's End
The pass hung silent and silver under the fitful moon. Somewhere in the distance a wolf howled. Hefting her heavy rifle to her other shoulder, Sybilla glanced at her communicator's luminescent dial. Only two more hours until her relief.
She sensed rather than heard the intruder and the hairs rose on the back of her neck. "Halt! Who goes there? Identify yourself or I'll shoot."
"Tonight's password is White Wolf 707, and hello to you too, little sister."
Sybilla had all she could do not to drop her weapon in the snow and hug her older brother. Instead, she came to attention and dutifully presented arms. "Commander? Isn't it a little early for inspection?"
Carlo chuckled. "I got done earlier than I'd expected. Call up your relief. We've got some talking to do."
"Talking? As in social visit?"
"Not exactly, but I'd just as soon get out of this wind if you don't mind."
Entering the wooden guard hut, Carlo shucked his battle helmet, gloves and heavy greatcoat. He stamped his booted feet, then stood warming his hands at the black iron stove. Fine strands of dark hair were plastered to his pale forehead and his blue eyes looked tired beyond belief.
After placing her rifle in the rack, Sybilla shook the snow from her brother's dark green coat and hung it up. When he smiled, she was struck anew by how handsome he was.
"Quite the little mother, aren't you, love?"
"There's not much space in here and that's our only chair." She unsnapped her chin strap, then removed her bulky headgear. After neatly placing the night vision glasses and helmet on the shelf above her bunk, she thankfully took off herbandolier and heavy jacket. "Phew! I need a shower."
Carlo eyed her sweat-stained wool shirt and heavy fatigue pants with some sympathy. With all the extra bulk, Sybilla still looked no bigger than a mouse and, much as he loved his baby sister, even he had to admit she would never be a beauty. Her heavy glasses perched on the end of her reddened nose, her pale blond hair had been flattened by the heavy helmet to the point of virtual non-existence and her tiny ferret-like features were even paler than usual.
"Momma sent me to bring you home. The war's over."
"The war's.... What? Oh, come on, Carlo, this is no time for jokes."
"No joke, little sister. The war is well and truly over."
"What about Port Moriah?"
"Momma's made a treaty with the Illyrians. In return for the Synod's protection, she's given up all claims to the port. From now on, it's to be neutral territory."
Sybilla's mouth dropped open.
The exquisite white-walled city of Moriah was their country's only outlet to the sea. A bone of contention between Illyria and Lodebar for over a thousand years, the bustling seaport had changed ownership every hundred years or so as regularly as clockwork.
In this latest go-around, Illyria's King Daniel had kicked the Lodebarians out in a daring midnight raid and denied them access to their fishing fleet. Queen Sidonia of Lodebar fled to the safety of Aretz, or Old Earth, where she appealed to the Interplanetary Synod Assembly for help. She'd returned a month ago and ordered her youngest daughter, Sybilla, up to Great Bear Pass for her regular tour of duty.
"The Synod? As in troops? You mean they actually came through?"
"Yup. As of now, Lodebar's under official Synod protection. An Allied detail should be coming up the pass any time to take over this guard station."
"What about Daniel? Don't tell me the Mountain King is gonna to give up a thousand years of tradition with one stroke of the pen? Oh, I don't believe it. This has to be some dirty Illyrian trick."
"No trick. Illyria's Crown Prince Darius was captured by Synod troops four days ago. They caught him on our territory and it seems he's the one behind the Masked Death raids. That's how the Synod Assembly forced Daniel to the treaty table."
"That little bastard was behind the Masked Death raids? And they didn't execute him on the spot?"
Sybilla shuddered. Men, women or children, the Masked Death hadn't cared. They came and went like shadows in the night, leaving their calling card at the scene of every slaughter: a razor sharp silver dagger bearing a snarling mountain lion's head on its handle.
"Actually, our people had him first, along with his little squad of terrorists."
"Alive? Why didn't they...?"
"First of all, they didn't realize who he was. Secondly, they hadn't gotten around to him yet. He was behind the wall of some farmhouse where his squad had taken cover. When one of our half-tracks came over the wall, he was underneath it. Our men had just finished cutting the other prisoners' throats and were pulling him out of the rubble when the Synod troops arrived. He was fighting like a wildcat. Even with the extra troops' help, they had one hell of a time subduing him."
"And they let the Synod take him, just like that?"
Sybilla handed her brother a steaming mug of broth and he sipped it gratefully. "Ah. That's good."
"It's what's left of a hare I trapped the other night. But go on. What happened next?"
"The Synod commander said he needed a prisoner for interrogation. Our captain saw no reason why not. The Illyrian was badly hurt and probably wouldn't live long anyway. If he'd had any idea...." Carlo cursed softly under his breath.
"Do you think the Synod commander knew?"
"Sure he did and it was almost as if he'd been tipped off. I found out later they whisked him straight off the planet. Where he is now is anyone's guess."
"That's how they got Daniel to the treaty table?"
"His queen was killed in battle a couple of years ago and that murdering brat's his only son. If it were up to me, I'd string him up right now. The Synod has other ideas. Right now, they're holding him hostage to Daniel's good behavior."
Sybilla sank into the chair. "I can't believe it. What does Momma say about all this?"
"She demanded Prince Darius's surrender to her custody so she could put him on trial. At the moment, she's probably madder at the Synod Assembly than Daniel is."
"But you said she's signed the treaty. She's given up Port Moriah as well?"
"Apparently. She's made some sort of a deal with the Synod Assembly in return for economic assistance."
"She sold us out for money?"
Carlo shrugged. "It seems that way, but what choice does she have, Syb? Our people are starving. With their housing and crops destroyed, half are living in cotton tents with hardly enough blankets and food to keep body and soul together, and winter's just getting started. I mean, look at you. Except for what you've been able to trap or forage, you'd be starving too."
"That's true. We haven't seen a supply shipment for weeks. As for pay, forget it. We aren't even getting that worthless paper scrip any more. Not that it was good for anything anyway, outside a fire starter."
He sighed. "Yeah, I know. I don't even care to ask what's in the Commissary stew. Rat, probably."
The hut door opened to admit a blue-helmeted Synod captain and five warmly clad men. Carlo and Sybilla returned his salute.
The captain's accent was that of a Seiran. "Your Highness. We've a supply truck and a couple of half-tracks outside. Will you be requiring an escort down the mountain?"
"Supply truck? As in real food?" Sybilla couldn't help herself.
White teeth flashed in the visitor's dark face. "We could have dinner first. It seems to me I even saw a bottle of brandy in one of the packs." He signaled to one of his men. "Mischa here is a fair cook, even with the dehydrated stuff our quartermaster has the nerve to call a meal. I would be honored to have you as my guests."
Sybilla looked down at herself in dismay. "If you gentlemen will excuse me...." She grabbed a change of clothes from the locker at the foot of her bunk and disappeared into the hut's tiny bathroom.
"Well, at least the heater still works," remarked Carlo. "I'd offer you something, Captain, but all we have is some hare broth and not much of that."
"We got here none too soon, then. The situation's been the same with every guard post we've visited. How you folks have held out this long is beyond me."
When the prince smiled, his weariness wasn't lost on the captain. "We were closer to the end of our rope than Daniel knew. Another week or two...."
"Just as well we're here, then. Ah, Mischa, bring that brandy over here with a couple of mugs. Your Highness, to your very good health."
Carlo raised his mug. "And that of Lodebar. Speaking of Daniel, what's the status with his son?"
The Seiran's eyes hooded. "The kid's where Daniel won't find him."
"As of my last report."
"Will you turn him over to my mother for trial?"
"The Assembly's Executive Committee has voted no."
"Who's got him?"
"That's a fair question. He was shipped to Nublis for medical treatment but their Emperor Janus says he wants no part of this hot potato. Nobody else wants him either: not with Daniel rampaging around. They've got far too much respect for Illyria's commando forces and know his father will stop at nothing to get the kid back."
"Umm. Maybe Momma's better off the way she is."
"That's the way the Assembly sees it. They're trying to stop the carnage, not renew the hostilities."
Sybilla emerged from the bathroom amid a cloud of steam and the fresh scent of soap.
The captain gallantly kissed her hand and she blushed. "Princess. Mischa is preparing a fine dinner. In the meantime, would you care for a drink?"
"How is Momma better off? The Synod's not surrendering that monster for trial?"
"It seems not."
"Where is he, then?"
"On Nublis, apparently. For how long is anyone's guess."
"They're not returning him to Illyria? Carlo, tell me they're not."
The captain shook his head. "The Synod won't execute him. But they'll do the next best thing and it's unlikely Illyria's Crown Prince will ever see his homeland or his father again."
* * *
The Synod Assembly President's tone was pleading. "Your Majesty, you would be doing us a tremendous favor. Seira's security is better than anyone else's and if anyone can handle this hot potato, it's you."
The Emperor of Seira grimaced slightly. "You've got no place else to put this problem child?"
"The decision to keep young Darius hostage to his father's good behavior has generated enormous controversy in the Assembly. The majority agrees that Daniel of Illyria is not to be trusted but no one wants his son within their borders."
"Knowing Daniel, I can hardly blame them. I've always kept him and Illyria at arms length and I'm not thrilled at the idea of being his son's keeper. By all accounts, young Darius is every bit as belligerent as his father."
"I agree. But there are a couple of things you should know, Your Majesty. Darius was seriously wounded when he was captured and there's a possibility he'll be permanently incapacitated. Darius is his father's only weakness. Daniel will go to almost any lengths to preserve his son's life and we'll take steps to ensure that his father doesn't know where he's being held. As long as he knows his son's still alive, we can keep Illyria in line and observing the terms of the treaty."
"Why don't you give Darius to Sidonia? Lodebar has more of a stake in this and she'd love to have him as a hostage."
"The Committee considered that. But Lodebar's a small impoverished country and Darius's presence there would give Daniel an incentive to invade them again. Also, the Lodebarians would be just as likely to say 'screw the peace treaty' and cut the kid's throat as soon as he arrived."
"After Daniel's last two invasions, I can't blame them. And Darius himself isn't exactly an innocent"
"Unfortunately, that's true. As young as he is, the prince has done his share and he's as bloodthirsty as his old man. Right now, we've got a peacekeeping force in Moriah and the Synod Assembly has pledged to help the port assert its independence. It's the only way to keep peace between them."
Timothy winced. "Don't remind me. Half the force in Moriah is Seiran and my oldest son happens to be its commander."
"That's why Daniel and Sidonia have been keeping their hands off. They have a healthy respect for Seira. Especially Sidonia."
"Ah, the lovely Sidonia. How is the dear lady, by the way?"
"She looked marvelous the last time I saw her. For someone as tough as she is she certainly looks very feminine."
"Don't let her appearance fool you. Sidonia's a real ball-breaker and her mother taught her well. Lodebar is a matriarchal society and the women have ruled there for centuries. Rumor has it Daniel came on to her at some interplanetary conference and she kneed him in the groin. Supposedly, that's why he hates her so much."
"I can believe it. Sidonia's every bit as stiff-necked as the Mountain King, but she was the one who sued for peace."
"If it's not too stupid a question," asked the Emperor, "what in the hell was Daniel's precious son doing in harm's way in the first place?"
"That's a good question. He wasn't supposed to be anywhere near the action. The Lodebarians captured his best friend in a previous raid and Darius sneaked across the border to rescue him. His unit was trapped on the way back and wiped out. The Lodebarians were cutting the captured Illyrians' throats and stripping them of their gear when one of our commanders arrived. He's a native of Betelgeuse and recognized Darius immediately. Without telling them who the kid was, he persuaded the Lodebarians to give him up for interrogation. Then he signaled for a MedEvac unit and flew him to the Synod's main base. We took him off-planet that same day."
"Where is he now?"
"On Nublis in their Temple clinic. But the Nublians would just as soon be rid of him. The Illyrians have an excellent intelligence service and they don't want any trouble. They've told us in no uncertain terms to find Darius another home. We have a deadline of one week from today."
"You can't find any government willing to take him?"
"Something like that."
"Well, I'm pretty sick of the hostilities between Illyria and Lodebar and Seira does have a vested interest in maintaining the peace in this part of the Synod. All right, I'll take him. I'll send my flagship to Nublis and leave it there in orbit. The Nublians can send him up in a shuttle from the Temple roof. Tell Janus he'll owe me a big one for this and his security had better be damn tight."
"Thanks, Timothy. The Synod will owe you too."
"Keep that in mind the next time a trade question comes up to do with Seira," growled the Emperor. "Just because our manufacturing is more cost-effective than anyone else's shouldn't make us a target for sanctions. I'm sick and tired of all these little crackpot nations squawking that we're taking the bread out of their mouths. If they'd do something about their internal corruption, they wouldn't have to worry about jobs for their people. But they won't because it's easier to throw rocks at Seira."
"I can't comment on that but I will keep it in mind. All right, I'll notify the Nublians and get back to you on the final arrangements."
"I hope I don't live to regret it. Incidentally, is the Assembly footing the bill for the transfer and expenses or am I expected to pay for those too?"
Only a Seiran, thought the President resignedly. "The Executive Committee has tabulated the prince's expenses as a budget item, and I would appreciate your sending the invoice to my personal attention. Part of the agreement is that Darius be permitted to bring an old family retainer with him. The man's name is Rufus Harkanian, he's known the kid since birth."
"No problem. I'll alert the flagship's crew to expect them. Incidentally, the ship has full medical facilities."
"Fine. I'll call you as soon as things are finalized."
"Good enough. I'll be waiting to hear from you."
Timothy deactivated the scrambler and snapped off the viewscreen. Then he leaned back in his big chair and put his feet up on the desk.
He should have known this peaceful situation wouldn't last. Things had been so quiet lately, he'd been almost worried. Even his strong-minded Empress and the palace's temperamental Major Domo had been getting along. The weather was beautiful and there had been no disputes in or outside the family. Now he was going to have to tell his wife about the imminent arrival of an unwilling houseguest. Once he had done that, he had an uneasy feeling this rare interlude of tranquility would come to an abrupt end.
The Emperor had no idea how right he was. If he'd had the slightest inkling of the upheaval Darius was going to cause, he'd have thought twice. But he didn't know, any more than he realized that the peace and quiet on that particular day was only the calm before the coming storm.
Copyright © 2003 by Kate Saundby