A famed old behemoth floats above the mottled planet. It waits to swallow the corvette that ferried us from Io to Mercury.
At just under four kilometers in length, the behemoth is shaped like an atavistic spear. Her battered hull is sable, like the seashells I used to collect with my father on the shores of Luna’s Sea of Serenity. Unlike those glossy shells, she reflects no light.
Her name is Annihilo.
I hope that annihilation is not the total extent of Atalantia’s designs.
“Big beast,” the man beside me says as if discussing the weather. “That killed Rhea?” I turn, wishing he were Cassius, but Cassius died trying to prevent this very moment.
The Rim has come to make peace with the profligate Core.
Instead of my old friend, mentor, and guardian, it is the eldest son of Romulus au Raa who stands beside me on the bridge of the Ionian corvette. Of all the Golds of the Rim, only Diomedes was deemed fit to serve as ambassador for this dire mission. I believe the choice well made. The man has gravitas. He wears a look of wary bemusement. His dark gold hair is streaked with black and tamed by a knot. His scarred, blunt face is not handsome according to Palatine tastes, but like his slumped shoulders and brutish hands, it belies a quiet, terrible potential.
From the brief flicker of swordsmanship he demonstrated on Io, and the reverence paid to his skills by his fellows, I judge Diomedes to be the only Rim Knight equal to Cassius in the ways of the blade. Yet he alone refused to fight my friend—even at cost to his own family.
For that, Diomedes will always have my respect.
“The Annihilo was the flagship of the armada that burned Rhea. Others contributed,” I reply.
“It is hideous. Of course, it does come from Venus.”
“My godfather never cared much about how something looked. Only if it worked.” He chuckles at that.
When first I saw Diomedes, I thought he was yet another brute, like so many of the Core duelists with more testosterone than brain. I was wrong. The man is an enigma somewhere between monk and barroom brawler. He shares meals with his Grays and Obsidians. He is never the first to speak or last to laugh. When he tells jokes, they usually come as blunt, elliptical rejoinders. He can be endearing, unnerving, and brutal.
Yet when news reached us that Darrow, Sevro, and Apollonius au Valii-Rath immolated my godfather in his sickbed, Diomedes did not rejoice as did his sister and many of his compatriots. Instead he came to offer his respects.
They were a peculiar comfort.
I loved my godfather, despite his deeds. Whether that is evidence of a personal failing or a moral imperative to love those who were kind to one as a child, I may never know.
“At the Battle of Ceres, the Annihilo was broken nearly in half by Darrow’s flagship,” I continue. “Still she managed to destroy two new Republic destroyers and hold off his fleet until Carthii reinforcements arrived. She is durable.”
He leans forward gamely. “It would be interesting to board her.”
“How would you do it?”
His eyes trace her instruments of death. “Quickly.”
There’s that Moonie dry wit. I have grown fond of the man and his taciturn demeanor, but worry his blunt form of honesty will prove a poor fit for the games of the Core. As Grandmother said: “A courtier without a Dancing Mask is as vulnerable as a Praetor without armor.” Still, Atalantia would be unwise to underestimate the razormaster of the Rim. Not two months ago, he watched his father walk to his own death as a matter of honor. I would not cross him lightly.
“When Atalantia asks how long the journey took, you will tell her three months,” Diomedes says.
“You don’t want her to know how fast your ships are.”
“Strength always fears speed.” His heavy eyes search mine. “You profess a desire to make Gold whole. We are not fools. We know Atalantia will turn on us when she has the upper hand. Helios and the council believe you may be able to convince her against…rash action.”
“And what does Dido think?” He ignores that. “I will do all in my power. You have my word.”
“My mother believes this is a ploy for you to seize the throne. But remember: we will have no part in kingmaking.”
“You have my word on that as well.”
I mean it, and I think Diomedes believes me.
Damn my inheritance. All that matters is that we still the turmoil that wracks the worlds. Gold remains the only viable peacemaker. But not while Gold is itself divided. To defeat Darrow, we must heal the wounds between the Rim and the Core. For that, I sacrificed Cassius. For that, I would sacrifice myself. But would Atalantia sacrifice herself for anything?
I doubt it.