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Sen Dunsidan, Prime Minister of the Federation, paused to look back over his shoulder as he reached his sleeping chambers.
There was no one there who shouldn’t be. His personal guard at the bedroom doorway, the sentries on watch at both ends of the hallway—no one else. There never was. But that didn’t stop him from checking every night. His eyes scanned the torchlit corridor carefully. It didn’t hurt to make certain. It only made sense to be careful.
He entered and closed the door softly behind him. The warm glow and sweet candle smells that greeted him were reassuring. He was the most powerful man in the Southland, but not the most popular. That hadn’t bothered him before the coming of the Ilse Witch, but it hadn’t stopped bothering him since. Even though she was finally gone, banished to a realm of dark madness and bloodlust from which no one had ever escaped, he did not feel safe.
He stood for a moment and regarded his reflection in the full-length mirror that was backed against the wall opposite his bed. The mirror had been placed there for other reasons: for a witnessing of satisfactions and indulgences that might as well have happened in another lifetime, so distant did they seem to him now. He could have them still, of course, but he knew they would give him no pleasure. Hardly anything pleasured him these days. His life had become an exercise conducted with equal measures of grim determination and iron will. Political practicalities and expediencies motivated everything he did. Every act, every word had ramifications that reached beyond the immediate. There was no time or place for anything else. In truth, there was no need.
His reflection stared back at him, and he was mildly shocked to see how old he had become. When had that happened? He was in the prime of his life, sound of mind and body, at the apex of his career, arguably the most important man in the Four Lands. Yet look what he had become. His hair had gone almost white. His face, once smooth and handsome, was lined and careworn. There were shadows in places where his worries had gathered like stains. He stood slightly stooped, where once he had stood erect. Nothing about him reflected confidence or strength. He seemed to himself a shell from which the contents of life had been drained.
He turned away. Fear and self-loathing would do that. He had never recovered from what the Morgawr had put him through the night he had drained the lives from all those Free-born captives brought out of the Federation prisons. He had never forgotten what it had felt like to watch them become the living dead, creatures for which life had no meaning beyond that assigned by the warlock. Even after the Morgawr had been destroyed, the memory of that night lingered, a whisper of the madness waiting to consume him if he strayed too far from the safety of the pretense and dissembling that kept him sane.
Becoming Prime Minister had imbued him with a certain measure of respect from those he led, but it was less willingly bestowed these days than it had been in the beginning, when his people still had hope that he might accomplish something. That hope had long since vanished into the rocks and earth of the Prekkendorran, where so many had shed their blood and lost their lives. It had vanished with his failure not only to end the war that had consumed the Four Lands for the better part of three decades, but even to bring it closer to a meaningful conclusion. It had vanished in his failure to enhance the prestige of the Federation in the eyes of those for whom the Southland mattered, leaving bitterness and disappointment as the only legacy he could expect should he die on the morrow.
He walked to his bed and sat down, reached automatically for the goblet that had been placed on his bedside table, and filled it from the pitcher of wine that accompanied it. He took a long drink, thinking that at least he had managed to rid himself of the intolerable presence of Grianne Ohmsford. The hated Ilse Witch was gone at last. With Shadea a’Ru as his ally, even as treacherous as she was, he had a reasonable chance of ending the stalemates that had confronted him at every turn for the last twenty years. Theirs was a shared vision of the world’s future, one in which Federation and Druids controlled the destinies and dictated the fates of all the Races. Together, they would find a way to bring an end to the Free-born–Federation war and a beginning to Southland dominance.
Although it hadn’t happened yet, and nothing he could point to suggested it would happen anytime soon. Shadea’s failure to bring the Druid Council into line was particularly galling. He was beginning to wonder if their alliance was one-sided. She had the benefit of his open support and he, as yet, had nothing.
Thus, he was forced to look over his shoulder still, because doubt lingered and resistance to his leadership grew.
He had just emptied his goblet and was thinking of filling it anew when a knock sounded at his door. He jumped in spite of himself. Once, an unexpected silence would have startled him. Those he feared most, the Ilse Witch and the Morgawr, would not have bothered to knock. Now every little sound caused the iron bands that wrapped his chest and heart to tighten further. He gave them a moment to loosen, then stood, setting the empty goblet carefully on the table beside him.
“Who is it?”
“Apologies, Prime Minister,” came the voice of his Captain of the Guard. “A visitor wishes a word with you, one of your engineers. He insists it is most urgent, and from the look of him, I would judge it to be so.” A pause. “He is unarmed and alone.”
Dunsidan straightened. An engineer? At this time of night? He had a number of them working on his airships, all of them assigned to find ways to make the component pieces of his fleet work more efficiently. But few, if any, would presume to try to talk to him directly, especially so late at night. He was immediately suspicious, but reconsidered as he realized that an attempt to see him under these conditions indicated a certain amount of desperation. He was intrigued. He put aside his reservations and irritation and stepped to the door.
The engineer slid through the doorway in the manner of a ferret to its hole. He was a small man who lacked any distinguishing physical characteristics. The way he held himself as he faced Sen Dunsidan suggested that he was a man who recognized that it was important not to overstep. “Prime Minister,” he said, bowing low and waiting.
“You have something urgent to speak to me about?”
“Yes, Prime Minister. My name is Orek. Etan Orek. I have served as an airship engineer for more than twenty years. I am your most loyal servant and admirer, Prime Minister, and so I knew that I must come directly to you when I made my discovery.”
He was still bent over, not presuming to address Sen Dunsidan as an equal. There was a cringing quality to his posture that bothered the Prime Minister, but he forced himself to ignore it. “Stand up and look at me.”
Etan Orek did so, though his effort at meeting Sen Dunsidan’s practiced gaze failed, his eyes preferring to fix on the other’s belt buckle. “I apologize for disturbing you.”
“What sort of discovery have you made, Engineer Orek? I gather this has something to do with your work on my airships?”
The other nodded quickly. “Oh, yes, Prime Minister, it does. I have been working on diapson crystals, trying to find ways to enhance their performance as converters of ambient light to energy. That has been my task for the better part of the past five years.”
Orek hesitated. “My lord,” he said, switching to the more formal and deferential title, “I think it best if I show you rather than tell you. I think you will better understand.” He brushed at his mop of unruly dark hair and rubbed his hands together nervously. “Would it be too much of an imposition to ask you to come with me to my work station? I know it is late, but I think you will not be disappointed.”
For a moment, Sen Dunsidan considered the possibility that this might be an assassination attempt. But he dismissed the idea. His enemies would surely come up with a better plan than this if they were serious about eliminating him. This little man was too fearful to be the instrument of a Prime Minister’s death. His presence was the result of something else, and much as he hated to admit it, Sen Dunsidan was increasingly interested in finding out what it was.
“You realize that if this is a waste of my time, there will be unpleasant consequences,” he said softly.
Etan Orek’s eyes snapped up to meet his, suddenly bold. “I am hoping that a reward will be more in order than a punishment, Prime Minister.”
Dunsidan smiled in spite of himself. The little man was greedy, a quality he appreciated in those who sought his favor. Fair enough. He would give him his chance at fame and fortune. “Lead the way, Engineer. Let us see what you have discovered.”
They went out the door of the bedchamber and into the hallway beyond. Instantly, Sen Dunsidan’s personal guard fell into step behind them, warding his back against attack, lending him fresh confidence just by their presence. There had never been an assassination attempt against him, although he had uncovered a few plots that might have led to one. Each time, those involved had been made to disappear, always with an explanation passed quietly by word of mouth. The message to everyone was made clear: Even talk of removing the Prime Minister from office would be regarded as treason and dealt with accordingly.
Still, Sen Dunsidan was not so complacent as to think that an attempt would not be made eventually. He would be a fool to think otherwise, given the restless state of his government and the discontent of his people. If an assassination attempt were successful, those responsible would not be condemned for their acts. Those who took his place would reward them.
It was a narrow, twisting path he trod, and he was aware of the dangers it held. A healthy measure of caution was always advisable.
Yet that night he did not feel such caution necessary. He couldn’t explain his conclusion, other than to tell himself that his instincts did not require it, and his instincts were almost always correct. This little man he followed, this Etan Orek, was after something other than the removal of the Prime Minister. He had come forward very deliberately when few others would have dared to do so, and for him to do that, he had to have very specific plans and, in all likelihood, a very specific goal. It would be interesting to discover both, even if it proved necessary to kill him afterwards.
They passed through the Prime Minister’s residential halls to the front entry, where another set of black-cloaked guards stood waiting, backs straight, pikes gleaming in the torchlight.
“Bring the coach around,” Sen Dunsidan ordered.
He stood waiting just inside the door with Etan Orek, watching as the other shifted anxiously from foot to foot and cast his eyes everywhere but on his host. Every so often, it appeared he might speak, but then he apparently thought better of it. Just as well. What would they talk about, after all? It wasn’t as if they were friends. After tonight, they would probably never speak again. One of them might even be dead.
By the time the coach rolled into the courtyard beyond the ironbound entry doors, Sen Dunsidan was growing impatient with the entire business. It was taking a lot of effort to do what his engineer had asked, and there was no reason in the world to think the trouble would be worthwhile. But he had come this far, and there was no point in dismissing the matter until he knew for certain that it merited dismissal. Stranger things had happened over the years. He would wait before passing final judgment.
They boarded the coach, his guards taking up positions on the running board to either side and on the front and rear seats outside the cab. The horses snorted in response to the driver’s commands, and the coach lurched ahead through the darkness. The compound was quiet, and only the lights that burned in a scattering of windows indicated the presence of the other ministers of the Coalition Council and their families. Outside the compound walls, the streets roughened, smells sharpened, and sounds rose as a result of the greater numbers housed there. Overhead, the moon was a bright, unclouded orb in the firmament, shining down on Arishaig with such intensity that the city lay clearly revealed.
On nights like this, the Prime Minister thought darkly, magic often happened. The trick was in recognizing if such magic was good or bad.
At the airship field, on the north edge of the city, Etan Orek directed them to one of the smaller buildings, a block-shaped affair that sat beyond the others and clearly was not used to house anything so grand as a flying vessel. A sentry on watch came out to greet them. Clearly confused and intimidated by the unexpected appearance of the Prime Minister, he nevertheless hastened ahead of the entourage to unlock the doors to the building.
Once there, the engineer led the way, indicating a long corridor barely lit by lamps at each end, the spaces between dark stains and shadowed indentations. Two of Sen Dunsidan’s guards moved ahead, taking note of each place in which an assassin might hide, close on the heels of an impatient Etan Orek.
Halfway down a second corridor, the engineer stopped before a small door and gestured. “In here, Prime Minister.”
He opened the door and let the guards enter first, their bulky forms disappearing at once into shadow. Inside, they fired torches set in wall brackets, and by the time Sen Dunsidan entered, the room was brightly lit.
The Prime Minister looked around doubtfully. The room was a maze of tables and workbenches piled high with pieces of equipment and materials. Racks of tools hung from the walls, and shards of metal of all sizes and shapes littered the floor. He saw several crates of diapson crystals, the lids pried open, the crystals’ faceted surfaces winking in the flicker of the torchlight. Everything in the room seemed to have been scattered about in haphazard fashion and with little concern for what it might take to find it later.
Sen Dunsidan looked at Etan Orek. “Well, Engineer Orek?”
“My lord,” the other replied, bowing his way forward until he stood very close—too close for the Prime Minister’s comfort. “It would be better if you saw this alone,” he whispered.
Sen Dunsidan leaned forward slightly. “Send my guards away, you mean? Isn’t that asking a little bit more than you should?”
The little man nodded. “I swear to you, Prime Minister, you will be perfectly safe.” The sharp eyes glanced up quickly. “I swear.”
Sen Dunsidan said nothing.
“Keep them with you, if you feel the need,” the other continued quickly, then paused. “But you may have to kill them later, if you do.”
Dunsidan stared at him. “Nothing you could show me would merit such treatment of the men in whose hands I daily place my life. You presume too much, Engineer.”
Again, the little man nodded. “I implore you. Send them away. Just outside the door will do. Just so they don’t see what I have to show you.” His breathing had quickened. “You will still have them within call. They can be at your side in a moment, should you feel you need them. But they will also be safely away, should you decide you don’t.”
For a long moment, Sen Dunsidan held the other’s gaze without speaking, then nodded. “As you wish, little man. But don’t be fooled into thinking I have no way to defend myself should you try to play me false. If I even think you are trying to betray me, I will strike you dead before you can blink.”
Etan Orek nodded. An unmistakable mix of fear and anticipation glittered in his eyes. Whatever it was, this business was important to him. He was willing to risk everything to see it through. Such passion worried Sen Dunsidan, but he refused to let it rule him. “Guards,” he called. “Leave us. Close the door. Wait just outside, where you can hear me if I summon you.”
The guards did as they were told. Once, there would have been hesitation at such a request. Now, after having survived a handful of unpleasant examples resulting from such hesitation, they obeyed without question. It was the way Sen Dunsidan preferred them.
When the door was closed, he turned again to Etan Orek. “This had best be worth my time, Engineer. My patience is growing short.”
The little man nodded vigorously, running his hand through his dark hair as he led the way to the far end of the room and a long table piled high with debris. Grinning conspiratorially, he began to clean away the debris, revealing a long black box sectioned into three pieces.
“I have been careful to keep my work hidden from everyone,” he explained quickly. “I was afraid they might steal it. Or worse, sell it to the enemy. You never know.”
He finished clearing the table of everything but the box, then faced Sen Dunsidan once more. “My assigned task for the past three years has been to seek new and better ways in which to convert ambient light into energy. The purpose, as I am sure you are aware, is to increase the thrust of the vessels in combat conditions, so that they might better outmaneuver their attackers. All my efforts to readapt a single crystal failed. The conversion is a function of the crystal’s composition, its shaping and its placement in the parse tube. A single crystal has a finite capability for conversion of light into energy, and there is nothing I have found that will alter that.”
He nodded, as if to reassure himself that he was right about this. “So I abandoned that approach and began to experiment with multiple crystals. You see, Prime Minister, I reasoned that if one crystal will produce a certain amount of energy, then two working together might double that figure. The trick, of course, is in finding how to channel the ambient light from one crystal to the next without losing power.”
Sen Dunsidan nodded, suddenly interested. He thought he understood now why Etan Orek had been so anxious to bring him there. Somehow, the engineer had solved the dilemma that had plagued the Federation for years. He had found a way to increase the power generated by the diapson crystals used in his airships.
“At first,” the other went on, “all of my attempts failed. The crystals, when I found a way to place them so that their facets transferred their converted energy from one to the other, simply exploded in the tubes. The additional power was too much for any one of them to handle. So then I began working to combine more than two, attempting to find a different way to channel their energy in a manner that was not so direct and less likely to incur damage.”
“You were successful?” Sen Dunsidan could not contain himself. Etan Orek’s insistence on dragging out this business was wearing on him. “You found a way to increase the amount of thrust?”
The little man shook his head and smiled. “I found something else. Something better.”
He walked over to the torches and extinguished them one by one until only those by the door were still burning. Then he moved to the box and raised its hinged lid, revealing a series of diapson crystals of varying sizes and shapes that were nested in metal cradles throughout the three sections of the box. The crystals had been arranged in sequence from small to large and in lines, but each one was blocked front and back by a shield carefully cut to its individual size. Narrow rods that crisscrossed the chambers like spiderwebs connected all the shields.
Orek stepped aside so that Sen Dunsidan could peer inside. The Prime Minister did so, but could make no sense of what he was seeing. “This is what you brought me to see?” he snapped.
“No, Prime Minister,” the other replied. “I brought you to see this.”
He pointed to the far end of the room, where a piece of heavy metal armor was fixed to the wall. Then he pointed down again toward the very rear of the box, where dark canvas draped an object Sen Dunsidan had overlooked.
Etan Orek smiled. “Watch, my lord.”
He lifted away the canvas to reveal a diapson crystal that looked something like a multifaceted pyramid. The instant the canvas was removed, the pyramid began to glow a dull orange. “You see?” Orek pressed. “It begins to gather ambient light. Now, watch!”
Seconds later, he fastened his fingers about the crisscrossed rods and snatched away the network of shields.
Instantly, light erupted from the pyramid crystal and ricocheted through all the other crystals in the box, brightening them one by one with the same dull orange glow. Swiftly the light built, traveling down the length of the box from crystal to crystal, gathering power.
Then, with an audible explosion, the light shot through a narrow aperture at the front of the box in a thin ribbon of fire that struck the piece of armor at the far end of the room. The metal erupted in a shower of sparks and flames and then began to melt as the light burned a fist-size hole right through its center and into the wall beyond.
Swiftly, Etan Orek pulled on a rod attached to the cradle in which the rear crystal rested, taking it out of line in the sequence. At once, the other crystals began to lose their power and their light began to fail. The engineer waited a few moments, then dropped the connecting shields back into place and re-covered the rear crystal with the canvas.
He turned to Sen Dunsidan and did not miss the look of shock on the Prime Minister’s face. “You see?” he repeated eagerly. “You see what it is?”
“A weapon,” Dunsidan whispered, still not quite believing what he had witnessed. At the far end of the room, the piece of target metal was still red-hot and smoking. As he stared at it, he envisioned a Free-born airship in its place. “A weapon,” he repeated.
Etan Orek stepped close. “I have told no one else. Only you, my lord. I knew you would want it that way.”
Sen Dunsidan nodded quickly, recovering his composure. “You did well. You will have your reward and your recognition.” He looked at the engineer. “How many of these do we have?”
The engineer looked pained. “Only the one, Prime Minister. I have not been able to build another yet. It takes time to calculate the proper angle and refraction needed. No two crystals are exactly alike, so each of these boxes will have to be built separately.”
He paused. “But one may be more than enough to do what is needed. Consider. To power the crystals in this box, I used only the torchlight by the doorway, a small and feeble source. Think of the power that you will have at your command when the crystals are exposed to bright sunlight. Think of the range and sweep when you increase the field of fire. Did you notice? The light does not burn the aperture at the front of the box. That is because it is glass-fused, and the light does not burn the glass as it does the metal. It heats it, singes it, but does not destroy it. We control the power of our weapon accordingly.”
Sen Dunsidan was barely listening, his thoughts racing ahead to what the discovery meant, to its vast possibilities, to the certainty he felt that in one bold stroke he could change the course of history. He was breathing hard, and it required an effort for him to calm himself enough to address his immediate concerns.
“You will tell no one of this, Etan Orek,” he instructed. “I will give you space and materials and a guard to allow you to work undisturbed. If you require help, you shall have it. You will report your progress to me and to me alone. Your superiors will be instructed that you have been assigned to a project of a personal nature. I want you to build me as many of these weapons as you can. Swiftly. If one is all you can manage, then one will have to do. But others would be most desirable and would enhance your reputation even further.”
He placed his hand on the engineer’s narrow shoulder. “I see greatness in you. I see a life of fame and fortune. I see a position of responsibility that shall transcend anything you have ever dreamed about. Believe me, the importance of what you have accomplished is impossible to exaggerate.”
Etan Orek actually blushed. “Thank you, Prime Minister. Thank you, indeed!”
Sen Dunsidan patted his shoulder reassuringly and departed the room. His waiting guards fell into step as he passed. Two he left stationed at the workroom door with strict orders to allow no one but himself to enter or leave. The engineer was to be kept under lock and key. He was to take his meals in his workroom. He was to sleep there as well. He was to be allowed to come out once a day for an hour when everyone else had gone home, but at no other time.
He was in his coach and riding back toward his bedchamber when he decided he would not have Etan Orek killed right away. He would keep him alive until he had constructed at least a handful of these marvelous weapons. He would keep him alive until after the Free-born army had been smashed and the Prekkendorran reclaimed.
Six weeks ought to be just long enough.