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The Last Hawk

The Last Hawk

by Catherine Asaro
The Last Hawk

The Last Hawk

by Catherine Asaro


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When Kelric, a scion of the imperial family of Skolia, crash-lands his fighter on the off-limits planet of Coba, he figures it will be only a short time before he makes his way home. But he fails to account for the powerful matriarchy of Coba, the mistresses of the great estates who do not want the Empire to know about their recent cultural advances.

First they take him prisoner.

Then, one by one, the most powerful women on the planet fall in love with him!

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504079587
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 11/08/2022
Pages: 366
Sales rank: 967,170
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.82(d)

About the Author

Catherine Asaro was born in Oakland, California and grew up in El Cerrito, just north of Berkeley. She received her Phd in Chemical Physics and MA in Physics, both from Harvard, and a BS with Highest Honors in Chemistry from UCLA. Among the places she has done research are the University of Toronto in Canada, the Max Planck Institut für Astrophysik in Germany, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Her research involves using quantum theory to describe the behavior of atoms and molecules. Catherine was a physics professor until 1990, when she established Molecudyne Research, which she currently runs.

A former ballerina, Catherine has performed with ballets and in musicals on both coasts and in Ohio. In the 1980s she was a principal dancer and artistic director of the Mainly Jazz Dancers and the Harvard University Ballet. Catherine still teaches ballet in Maryland.

Catherine's fiction is a successful blend of hard science fiction, romance, and exciting space adventure. She has published more than ten novels, almost all of which belong to her Saga of the Skolian Empire, including The Quantum Rose, which won the Nebula Award for best novel of 2001

Her husband is John Kendall Cannizzo, an astrophysicist at NASA. They have one daughter, a young ballet dancer who loves math.

Read an Excerpt


The ship's controls wobbled in and out of focus. Kelric tried to rub his eyes, but his arm refused to respond. The exoskeleton on his pilot's seat had jammed around his body. When he fumbled for the catches, his fingers just scraped over the mesh.

On his fourth attempt, the exoskeleton opened and he fell forward, sprawling across the weapons grid in the cockpit. The only illumination came from the red warning lights that glowed all over the control panels, bathing the cockpit in a dim crimson radiance that didn't reach its shadowed recesses.

One green light shone among the red. An engine. One of his inversion engines. It was the only fully functional system on his ship.

It was also why he still lived.

"I'm inverted," Kelric mumbled. The same hit that had crippled his Jag fighter had kicked it from the sublight universe into inversion, hurling him away from his attackers before they could blast him into slag.

The medkit above him hadn't released. He reached for it, but his arm faltered in mid-air and dropped back onto the grid. Not that it mattered. He needed far more help than a kit could give, more help even than provided by his nanomeds, the tiny cell-repair machines in his body.

Pain throbbed in his arm, from a bone-deep gash. In the exoskeleton he had been numb, probably because it injected him with an anesthetic. Or perhaps the biomech web in his body had released a drug that blocked pain receptors in his brain. It would give him only so much of the drug, though, before its safety routines cut it off, to prevent an overdose or brain damage.

Now his arm hurt too much to move. Even if it intended tostay put, though, his ship was going somewhere. At least it had taken him away from the Traders. He had been out alone, on reconnaissance, when the Trader squad caught him. He hoped they all inverted into the gravity well of a star and finished their careers as kindling for the local furnace.

An alarm sputtered. Lifting his head, he saw that the green light had turned yellow. The last inversion engine was failing.

Kelric swallowed. He had to find a place to land. Closing his eyes, he tried to clear his mind.

Bolt, respond, he thought.

The computer node in his spine answered. Attending. Its messages traveled along bio-optic threads to his brain, where tiny bio-electrodes in his brain cells converted the signals into neural firing patterns. It worked in reverse as well, letting him "talk" to the node.

Status of nanomeds, he thought.

Nanomed series G and H functional but depleted, the node answered. Series Q nonfunctional. All other series exhibit decreased function.

Kelric grimaced. His nanomeds repaired his body. Each med consisted of two parts, a molecule designed for a particular task and a picochip, an atomic computer that operated on quantum transitions. Altogether, the picochips formed a picoweb that told the meds what to do and how to replicate themselves. But it was Bolt, his spinal node, that ran the show. Like the conductor of a symphony, it directed his entire biomech web, which consisted of the picoweb, the bio-optics threading his body, and the bio-electrodes in his brain. The system had been integrated into his body fourteen years ago, when he was twenty, the year he received his officer's commission.

Bolt, he thought. What happened to my biomech web?

You were linked into the ship's Evolving Intelligence brain when we were hit, so your web took a lot of damage. I am making repairs, but the malfunctions are too extensive for me to fully correct. Proceed immediately to an ISC medical facility.

If he hadn't hurt so much, Kelric would have laughed. Wish I could do that. He swallowed. Can you give me a status report?

Accessing optical nerve, Bolt answered.

A display formed in Kelric's mind, with different views of his interior systems. Then the display "jumped" out in front of him so it looked like a ghostly image hanging in the cockpit.

Posterior tibial artery damaged. Bolt highlighted a diagram of his circulatory system, showing a torn artery leaking blood.

Kelric exhaled. His best hope to repair himself came from the final component of his internal systems: his Kyle centers. Unlike the biomech web, which had been created for him, he was born with Kyle mutations, courtesy of his unusual genetics. Microscopic organs in his brain made it possible for his brain waves to interact with those of people nearby, letting him pick up their moods and on rare occasions their thoughts. He could also enhance the output of his own brain and so exert increased biofeedback control over his body.

Kelric concentrated, trying to augment his biofeedback training. He helped speed structural components to the damaged artery, control his blood flow, and bring in nutrients. When he finally surfaced from his trance, he felt steadier, enough so he could sit up, holding his arm against his chest.

An alarm warned again of the dying engine.

"Navak," he said. "Take us out of inversion, into sublight space."

No response came from the navigation-attack node in the ship's Evolving Intelligence brain.

"Navak," he repeated. "Initiate navigation mode."


Bolt, give me the ship's emergency menu, he thought.

Bolt produced a display of emergency psicons, like computer icons but in his mind instead of on a screen. He concentrated on the emergency-shutoff psicon for the inversion engines, the symbol of a running cheetah turning into a crawling snail. Only one of each animal appeared in the display, a reminder that he had only one functional engine. The cheetah psicon was blinking off and on, warning it would soon disappear as well.

Toggle emergency shutdown, he thought.

Nothing happened.

Bolt, toggle it!

A twisting sensation hit Kelric, as if he were being pulled through a klein bottle, the three-dimensional equivalent of a M^bius strip. The effect intensified with a nauseating mental wrench and then stopped.

Bolt? he thought.

We have dropped into normal space, Bolt answered.

Kelric sagged in his seat, hit with an urge to laugh. Sublight. Safe. He was safe.

He was also lost. None of his holomaps worked and too many files in the ship's EI were degraded. He couldn't get accurate data. He knew only that he was light years away from his previous position, drifting in space like interstellar flotsam. What he needed was a beach to wash up on.

"Navak," he said. "Respond."


Kelric slid his hand around his waist, searching his lower back. Sockets in his spine, wrists, and ankles let him connect his biomech web to exterior systems, such as the EI brain of his ship. When a connector prong clicked into a socket, it linked his bio-optics to the ship's fiberoptics. The sockets could also act as infra-red receivers and transmitters, a less reliable form of communication than a physical link, but better than nothing.

When he had fallen out of the exoskeleton, its prongs pulled out of his body. He tried to push one back into his lower spine, but the prong wouldn't stay put.

Activate infra-red receptors, he thought.

IR nonfunctional, Bolt thought.

Kelric swore. He was running out of options. Taking a breath, he marshaled his thoughts. With his Kyle enhancements, maybe he could couple the fields of his brain directly to those of the ship's EI brain. It helped that he was inside the ship, essentially on top the EI; the electrical forces that dominated his brain activity fell off rapidly with distance.

Concentrating, he tried to kick the EI awake with his mind.

A ghostly green marble appeared in the air in front of him, casting eerie green light over the cockpit. It took him a moment to recognize it as a holomap's crudest default display.

Kelric exhaled. "Planet," he rasped.

Navak's audio made a scraping noise.

He tried again. "Planet."


Navak, he thought. You have to respond.

A sentence formed in the air, green words in Navak's default font. HAV#"%SPOND IS AN UNIDENTIFIABLE COMMAND.

Relief washed over Kelric. PLANET, he thought, with more intensity. The word appeared under Navak's response.

PLANET WHAT? Navak printed.


SEARCHING, Navak printed.

Kelric waited.

And waited.

Maybe no place was near enough. Or Navak was too damaged to answer. Or the engine couldn't—




For pugging sakes, Kelric thought. What else would I mean?


WHAT I WANT, Kelric thought, IS EVERYTHING YOU'VE GOT ON OBJECT 85B5D—He squinted at the screen—E6-JHEO.


Kelric swallowed. Inhabitants. Help. He just might survive this mess after all.

TAKE SHIP TO COBA, he thought.

Chapter One


Years 960—966 of the Modern Age

Part One


First Move: The Golden Ball

Deha Dahl, the Manager of Dahl Estate, was playing dice. She placed a cube in the structure of balls, pyramids, and polyhedrons on the table. Her opponent, one of her more intrepid Estate aides, wiped sweat from her forehead as she studied the dice.

While Deha waited for her aide to make her move, she glanced around. They were in the Coral Room, a round chamber twenty paces in diameter. Painted a deep rose near the floor, the walls shaded into lighter coral hues and then into white at the top. Mosaics inlaid the domed ceiling high above them. The room's three doorways each arched to a point and then curved out in a circle graced with a stained glass window. The doors were solid amberwood. Deha insisted on only the best for these chambers where she played the dice game of Quis with her aides, her peers—and her adversaries.

Their audience of Estate aides sat in carved chairs around the table. They watched the game in silence, some no doubt wishing they could take the perspiring aide's place and others grateful it wasn't them in this duel of minds. All knew she had called this session to see how her opponent, and aide due a promotion, handled the pressure of playing against a Dice Queen.

A hand touched Deha's shoulder. She looked around, surprised to see an aide who wasn't among the group she had selected to view the session.

The aide bowed. "I'm sorry to disturb you, ma'am. But Captain Hacha thought you would want to know immediately. A craft crashed up in the mountains near Dahl pass." She paused. "It doesn't appear to be from Coba."

There was a time when Deha would have shipped the bearer of such news off to the setting-sun-asylum for the mentally diminished. No longer. She stood up. "Have Hacha meet me in my office." She glanced at her dice opponent. "We will continue later."

The aide nodded and started to speak. Then she stopped, her gaze shifting to a point beyond Deha. She stood up and bowed, not to Deha but to someone else. Following her gaze, the rest of Deha's aides stood up, in a flurry moving chairs, and bowed.

Deha turned to see who evoked such a reaction from her staff. A retinue had appeared in one of the doorways, soldiers in the uniform of her CityGuard. A girl stood in the center of the group, a gray-eyed child on the verge of womanhood, with fiery hair curling around her face and falling in a thick braid down her back. Tall for her age, she looked like the reincarnation of an incipient warrior queen who had transcended the millennia and stepped from the Old Age into the modern world.

Deha crossed to the girl and bowed. "Ixpar. What brings you here?"

Ixpar's face was lit with contained excitement. "I heard about the craft that crashed near Dahl pass. I came to help the rescue party."

Deha silently cursed. It would be foolishness to let Ixpar join them. This was no normal child. Ixpar Karn: it meant Ixpar from the Estate of Karn. Of the Twelve Estates, Karn was largest, more so even than Dahl. It was also the oldest. Its Manager not only ruled Karn; as Minister she stood highest in the hierarchy of the Estates. And she had chosen this girl to be her successor. Someday Ixpar would rule Coba.

But if she didn't let Ixpar come with them, she risked alienating Karn. The girl was already a force in the power flows among the Estates. Rumor claimed the Minister had been known to place her young successor's opinions above those of her senior advisors.

Political prudence won out. "Very well," Deha said. She raised her hand as Ixpar's face lit up. "But I want you stay with my personal escort at all times." She glanced toward the mountains. "We have no idea what crashed up there."


In her guest suite, Ixpar changed into hiking clothes: a sweater, leather pants, and a leather jacket. When she left the suite, she found her escort in the entrance foyer, four tall guards armed with stunners. They accompanied her as she walked through Dahl. Always guards. At times she was tempted to hide or slip away. But she resisted the urge, knowing she was the only one who would find it entertaining.

Guards or no guards, though, she enjoyed the walk. It was hard to believe the Estate had once been an armed fortress. Its harsh interior had long ago given way to its present beauty, its stone floors softened with carpets and its formerly barred windows replaced by faceted yellow glass. Some corridors formed the perimeter of large halls, set off from them only by widely spaced columns. Just as the ancient warrior queens of Dahl had ruled from the Estate, so Deha and her staff now used it as their residence.

They left the Estate and walked through the city. Blue cobblestones paved the streets, which wound among buildings made from pale blue or lavender stone, with turreted roofs. Spires topped the turrets and chains hung from their tips, strung with metal Quis dice. When the wind blew, which was almost always, the chains swung and clinked, sparkling in the sun. They passed bright temples dedicated to the sungoddess Savina or the dawn god Sevtar, and saw ball courts filled with exuberant players, men and women laughing in the wind. The day was bright, gusty, and fresh. She wanted to jump. Shout. Get into trouble. Of course she couldn't. But it was still a glorious day.

Ixpar knew the route to the airfield well; the Minister often brought her to visit Dahl, which had long been an ally of Karn Estate. This time Minister Karn had sent her alone. It was about time. Ixpar felt as if she were straining in a harness, struggling to fly in the currents of power among the Estates.

Other feelings also stirred within her, less comprehensible than politics. She felt painfully awkward, tall and gangly, with big feet. She grew so fast lately, like a spindlestalk plant. She thought of the youth Tev, with his lean muscles and curly hair. At night she tossed in bed, reminding herself that a woman's intentions toward men should always be honorable. It didn't help. She couldn't stop herself from thinking up ways to convince him that he should let her compromise his honor.

The growl of an engine interrupted her thoughts. Beyond the end of the street, the airfield waited. With her retinue, Ixpar crossed the last stretch of pavement and walked onto the tarmac. Crews were wheeling out two windriders, aircraft painted like giant althawks, with wings of red plumage edged in black, gleaming gold heads, and landing gear as black as talons. They looked ready to leap into the sky.

The rescue party was assembling near a hangar. In addition to Deha, the group included Rohka, the Estate Senior Physician, and the young doctor Dabbiv, his gaze intense as he spoke with a pilot. Deha's personal escort stood by the hangar door: Hacha, captain of the escort; Rev, a broad-shouldered man who towered over most everyone else; slender Llaach with her night-black hair; and Balv, youngest of the four.

Ixpar soon found herself in the same craft as the escort, with Balv as pilot. He went about his preflight checks as if what he were doing was perfectly normal. Well, this was Dahl. Things were different here. Modern.

Hacha sat next to Ixpar. As tall as Rev, but leaner, the captain looked like her name: tough and craggy. Following Ixpar's gaze to Balv, she chuckled. "He's a pleasant one to look at, heh?"

Ixpar reddened. "I was just watching his flight preparations."

Deha settled into the co-pilot's seat and leaned back to talk to Hacha, saving Ixpar from more embarrassment. Discreetly, so as not to be caught staring again, she watched the Manager. A braid of black hair hung to Deha's waist and tendrils curled about a classic face. A dusting of silver showed in the hair at her temples. Her most compelling feature was her eyes; huge and as black as obsidian, they drew attention.

The rider soon lifted off, its wing slats spreading like giant feathers to catch the wind. The dome of the Observatory passed below them, glistening in the sunlight. As the ground dropped away other towers became visible, spires reaching into the sky. Seen from above, the Estate looked like a sculpture: bridges arched in frozen lace over courtyards, battlements glowed an antique gold in the sunlight, and curving walls added scalloped edges to the design.

Then the parks set aside for the Dahl Calanya came into view.

Ixpar pressed her nose against the window, straining to see the forbidden Calanya. Surrounded by a massive windbreak, the parks made a tapestry of lawns and lakes dotted by a myriad of colorful flowers. She could just make out a fountain, a hazelle stag rearing on his hind legs. Arches of water curved up from his horns and fell sparkling into a basin.

The view widened to include the city of Dahl nestled in its mountain valley, its streets accented by the specks of pedestrians. The rider soared higher and Dahl receded until it was no more than a pattern of colors in the panorama of the Teotec mountains. Ahead, peaks climbed so far into the sky that she grew dizzy trying to sight their tips; behind, forested slopes plunged down until, out of sight beyond the horizon, they became cliffs which met a desert whipped by the wind.

It was out there, a day's ride into the desert, that the strangers had built their starport.

Starport. It had an eerie sound. People from above the sky. Ixpar had seen them years ago when their military commanders came to Karn, imposing warrior queens with hard edges to their personalities. Skolians they called themselves, even though they looked like Cobans. Their talk of building a port in the desert had troubled Minister Karn. Now Ixpar sensed unease in Deha as well, an apprehension that whatever had crashed in the mountains was not born of Coba.


"There!" Deha had to shout to be heard over the engines. "I saw something below that crag. A glint, like metal." She glanced at Balv. "Can you take us down?"

He squinted into the glare from the snow. "There's room behind those rocks."

The rider descended, its wing slats drawing together like huge feathers. The snowskis unfolded with a grind, sailing over the snow, jolting the cabin when they skimmed over patches of rock. As they shot past a huge drift, Balv snapped the wings in flush to the hull. After they were clear again he opened the metal pinions and braked against the wind until the rider skidded to a stop.

Captain Hacha disembarked first, followed by Balv, then Deha and Ixpar. Llaach and Rev came last. Not only had the guards hung stunners from their belts, Rev carried a honed discus in a sling over his shoulder and Llaach had a dagger on her boot.

The second rider landed, bringing more guards and the doctors. With Hacha in the lead, they hiked to a hill of boulders that hid the downed craft. Ixpar clambered up the mound, dislodging rocks in her hurry. She reached the top—

And looked out at the wreckage of a starship steaming in the melted snow.

Incredibly, it was hardly bigger than a windrider. Even as a wreck, hints of its former grace showed, making it look like an alabaster sculpture broken against the mountain.

Hacha reached it first. She vanished through a hole in the hull, but reappeared almost instantly. "There's a pilot in here," she called. "I think he's alive."

They sped in a sliding run down the hill, their boots kicking up flurries from patches of snow. At the ship, Rev grabbed a twist of metal and shoved it upward, widening the rent in the hull so the others could enter. The interior was chaos: crumpled bulkheads, sparks jumping from panels, broken shards everywhere. The pilot lay collapsed across his forward controls.

Rohka, the Estate Senior Physician, knelt by the man. "He's still breathing."

"We better get him out of here," Llaach said. "If this craft is like a windrider, these sparks could start a fire. The whole ship could blow."

"I doubt starships run on petrol," the doctor Dabbiv said.

Rohka glanced at Rev and Hacha, the two tallest people in the group. "Can you carry him?"

Working together, Hacha and Rev eased the man out of his seat. They took him out of the ship and strode away until they reached a wall of rock surely thick enough to protect against even the explosion of a starship. After they set him gently down on the ground, the doctors went to work on his wounds.

Ixpar knelt to look at the pilot. He was metal. His skin and hair shimmered like gold. His face could have been a mask of the wind god Khozaar; it had that same flawless beauty. But where myth claimed Khozaar was as supple as the wind, this man was huge, bigger than Rev even, with a massive physique to match.

She laid her palm on the pilot's cheek, checking for fever. Despite its metallic cast, his skin felt warm. Human. She wanted to touch him more, to stroke his hair and face, but she held back. Instead she helped the doctors untangle him from his torn jacket. She uncovered his arms—and dropped his sleeve, her mouth falling open.

Llaach made an incredulous noise. "That's impossible."

"I don't believe it," Balv said. "He's a Calani."

Ixpar didn't believe it either. But the evidence was inescapable. The man wore three gold armbands on each of his upper arms.

"Three bands." Rev's voice rumbled. "He's a Third Level Calani."

"For wind's sakes," Dabbiv said. "He can't be a Calani. He's not even from this planet." The doctor pulled scraps of cloth away from the man's waist. "They don't have—hey!" He dropped the scraps. "Look at that."

A weapon, huge and black, glittered on the pilot's hip.

"That's some stunner," Llaach said. "What is a Calani a doing with a gun?"

Captain Hacha frowned. Then she headed back to where Deha and the other guards were examining the ship. Apparently the Manager didn't believe it might explode; they were all walking in and out of the wreckage.

Ixpar turned back to the pilot. She wasn't sure which she found more unsettling: an offworld Calani or a Calani with a gun. She ran her fingers over the engravings on his armbands. "These hieroglyphics are Skolian."

Dabbiv glanced up from the splint he was setting on the man's leg. "You can read Skolian?"

"Minister Karn had me learn it."

"Can you make out the name of his Estate?" Balv asked.

"Something about an office," Ixpar said. "It's a title—Third Office, I think. It must mean his Calanya Level." She pieced out the inscription. "Jagged Imperial Third Office. No it's Officer, not Office. Tertiary Officer?" She studied the glyphs. "Jagernaut. That's what it says. Jagernaut Tertiary, Kelricson Garlin Valdoria. Imperial Space Command."

"What does it mean?" Llaach asked.

"If we don't get him to a Med House," Dabbiv said, "that won't matter. He'll be too dead for it to make a difference."

Manager Dahl's voice came from behind them. "This man is an Imperial citizen. You all know their Restriction laws. We are forbidden interaction with him. We must take him directly to their starport."

Ixpar stood up. "He's hurt. He needs our help."

"The starport has medical facilities," Deha said.

Senior Physician Rohka looked up from the leg she was splinting. Ixpar could guess the doctor's thought; it would take nearly a day to reach the port.

"He will die before we get there," Rohka said.

Deha considered the doctor. Then she turned to Ixpar. "Would you come with me?"

The Manager led her to an area behind another outcropping. Hacha and Rev were both there, studying a panel from the wreckage. A symbol glowed on it, a black triangle inscribed by an amber circle. Etched within the circle was the gold silhouette of an exploding sun.

"Do you recognize this symbol?" Deha asked her.

"It's called the Ruby insignia," Ixpar said.

"What does it mean?"

Ixpar thought back to what the The Public Affairs Officer from the Imperial delegation had told Minister Karn. "'Ruby' refers to the rulers of an ancient empire that predates the Imperialate. The Ruby Dynasty."

"I thought a council ruled the Skolian Imperialate," Deha said.

"Now, yes. The Assembly." Ixpar brushed her fingers across the insignia. "The Ruby Empire collapsed five thousand years ago. Apparently only ruins remain."

"This insignia is part of the pilot's identification."

"When the Imperialate was forming, about four centuries ago, they decided to use the Ruby symbol for their insignia." Ixpar shrugged. "They put it on everything."

Deha regarded her uneasily. "But this comes from his personal ID."

Personal ID? That intrigued Ixppar. "Maybe he descends fromthe Ruby Dynasty."

"Does that have any significance?"

"I'm not sure." She considered the thought. "We had better get him to Dahl."

"If he recovers, it won't be long before he realizes no reason exists for the Restricted status we convinced his military to give us." Deha grimaced. "What if he decides to notify Imperial Space Command? Right now they think something wrong with us. It's the only reason they leave us alone. Do you really want ISC to institute formal assimilation procedures for Coba? You've met their warrior queens, Ixpar. They conquer. Period. The Restriction is our only protection."

"They aren't all warrior queens. Half their military are men." Ixpar glanced at the pilot. "An army like that can't be harsh."

"That assumption is based on our culture. Not theirs."

Ixpar turned back to her. "If we take him to the starport, we'll be returning a dead man. These Imperial warrior queens you so fear aren't just going to show up, take his body, and forget we let one of their sons die." She thought of how his cheek had felt under her hand, how it made her want to touch him more. "And just look at him. He's so beautiful."

"Just because he's a handsome young man instead of a craggy old Manager, that doesn't make the danger less." Deha considered her. "Does anyone at the port monitor these mountains?"

"I don't think so. The port is automated. No people. Every now and then we hear that a ship came in to refuel, but the crews never leave the port."

"According to his ship's log, he was lost when he crashed."

Ixpar understood what Deha left unsaid; if they buried the pilot and destroyed his ship, their anonymity was safe. But when she looked at him, he brought images of desire and fatherhood to her mind. Her instinct was to protect him. "Deha, no. What if we take him to Dahl and never let him go? His people sent him out without any protector. It's their own fault he ended up like this. He's ours now."

"He might escape. We can't risk that."

The doctor Dabbiv came over to Deha. "If we're going to save his life, we have to leave for Dahl as soon as possible."

Deha looked at the Skolian. In the sunlight, his skin, hair, and armbands gleamed like gold. Softly she said, "He truly is a beauty."

Her voice returned to its matter-of-fact tone. "Very well. Put him in my rider. We will take him to Dahl."

Chapter Two

First Structure: Orb's Circle

It was an ice forest of blue, its branches a lacework of filaments.

Gradually Kelric realized the forest was a blanket lying across his eyes. He considered pulling it down. As he drifted in and out of sleep the idea lodged in his mind, until finally it translated into action. His head moved, just barely, but enough to make the blanket slip so he could look beyond the blue.

He saw more blue; a wall, painted sapphire near the floor, shading up through lighter blues until it blended into ivory at the top. Sunlight streamed through a window patterned from diamond-shaped panes of frosted and faceted glass. Breezes rippled its curtains, revealing glimpses of sky and mountains. A table stood near the window, surrounded by four chairs carved with leaf designs.

A girl moved into his line of sight. All he registered at first was the glorious mane of red hair that cascaded to her hips.

"Who ... ?" he asked.

Coming closer, she spoke in accented Skolian. "You are awake?"

"Not sure ... Are you real?"

"Very real, Kelricson." She laid her hand across his forehead. "I am Ixpar."

"How know my name?"

"From your armbands. They are part of your uniform, yes?"

"Yes ... "

Her fingers trailed to his cheek and lingered. Then she withdrew her hand. "We found you when you crashed above Dahl."

He wanted to ask what was a Dahl, but it was too much exertion. So he soaked in the warmth of the covers. Ixpar blotted the sweat on his forehead with a cloth.

After a while he said, "Not Kelricson."

"Kelricson is not your name?" she asked.

A fragment of memory drifted in his mind: he was being announced at a session of the Assembly. His heritage gave him an honorary seat and a sense of duty prodded him to attend, but he felt painfully awkward, an oversized soldier out of place among the councilors. Neither politics nor public speaking had ever come naturally to him. So he sat silent through the entire session.

"Not-Kelricson?" Ixpar asked. "You are still here?"

He looked up at her. "What?"

"You were telling me your name."

The man in his memory continued to announce his title, so he repeated it. "Kelricson Garlin Valdoria kya Skolia, Im'Rhon to the ... to the Rhon of the Skolias."

"So many names. Do you wish I use them all?"

"Just Kelric." His eyelids felt heavy. "In dreams ... don't need baggage."

The girl smiled. "I will tell Deha you think her Estate is a dream."


"She is Manager of Dahl. She led the rescue party that rescued you."

"Will you tell her something else?"

"Anything you like."

Softly Kelric said, "Tell her I am forever in her debt." Then he passed out.


Darkness alternated with light. Kelric was only vaguely aware of his surroundings; whatever medication the doctors were giving him blurred his mind and melted the days into a haze. His nanomeds weren't trying to deactivate the drugs, though whether that was because Bolt had decided the medicine helped him or because the system wasn't functioning, he wasn't sure. Bolt made no response to his queries.

On a night when warm breezes sifted through the curtains, he drifted out of sleep to see a tall figure standing by his bed.

"Ixpar ... ?" he asked.

"She sleeps," the woman said. She spoke Skolian with such a thick accent he barely understood it, but her resonant voice pleased the ear and her aura of power penetrated even his drugged haze. Starlight sifted through the window and silvered her slender form. She wore a simple robe that covered her body without hiding its natural grace. Her features were regular: high cheekbones, straight nose, sculpted planes. Her eyes riveted his attention; huge and dark, with faint lines around them, they looked like black pools, drawing him into their depths.

Kelric concentrated on the stranger, but his Kyle receptors caught nothing more than a name. Day? Deha? Then pain sparked in his temples, forcing him to relax his attention.

Deha sat on the bed and laid her palm on his forehead.

"It's hot," he mumbled.

"Much so," she agreed. "Your fever refuses to leave."

"How long been here?"

"One tenday and a bit more."

"Ten days?" He tried to sit up. "Need contact my squad."

Deha nudged him back down. "What you need do is rest." She brushed a curl out of his eyes, then stroked her hand over his hair. "Golden Calani," she murmured.

"Calani?" he asked. But he fell asleep before she answered.


Straining against the body cast that covered him from chest to toe, Kelric vomited into the basin that he nurse was holding. After the spasms eased, he sank down onto the bed again. People crammed the room: his nurse cleaned his face, another nurse took the basin, guards hulked by the door, doctors conferred in whispers. He wished they would all go away and let him be sick in private.

A man said his name. Looking up, he saw the doctor Dabbiv and the guard Llaach watching him. The doctor spoke again. Although Kelric had learned a few words of their language, he had a long way to go before he could understand even simple sentences. When he shook his head, the doctor slowly repeated the phrase.

Translate, Kelric thought, hoping Bolt's recovery had continued along with his own.

I can't, Bolt answered. My transl^%''Û@—+


My library hasn't built up enough Coban words or grammar.

Kelric shook his head at Dabbiv again, hoping his meaning was clear. The doctor considered him, then turned to Llaach. After conferring with the guard, he nodded to Kelric and took his leave of the room.

Llaach lifted a glass of water off the nightstand and offered it to Kelric. He shook his head, but she persisted in trying to make him drink. They went back and forth that way for a while, until Dabbiv reappeared with Ixpar at his side.

The girl smiled. "My greetings, Kelric."

He exhaled with relief. "Can you tell me what they want?"

"Dabbiv says you are deehi—what is the word? Dehydrait?" She took the glass from Llaach and tilted it to his lips. "Dried up."

Kelric pushed it aside. "No."

"You should do what Dabbiv says. He is a good doctor."

"Does he put anything in my food? Drugs?"

"Of course not. He brings your medicines for you to drink."

"Are you certain?"

"Yes. Why do you ask?"

"I think the food and water are what make me sick."

She frowned. "You would not say this if you knew how much care the cooks use with your meals."

"I appreciate their efforts. But I'm not Coban. What's harmless to you could poison to me." Particularly now, when his nanomeds were deactivated or dormant.

Ixpar talked with the doctor, then turned back to Kelric. "Dabbiv says he will try to find you a better diet. And we can boil your water. Do you think this would help?"

He smiled. "Yes. Thank you."

"We will right away talk to the cooks. But now you should rest. I will tell all these worried looking people to leave."

Good luck, Kelric thought. He had been trying all morning to make them go.

Ixpar spoke a few words to the others—and they left. Then she bowed and took her leave as well, without another word.

Kelric blinked. Just like that, his room was empty. What about his young nurse commanded such a response? It wasn't Ixpar's appearance, exactly; she was awkward with adolescence, all arms and legs. But she had a quality about her, something undefinable that made her seem larger than everyone else.

In any case, the privacy was a relief. He lay back, gazing at the ceiling, which was painted blue, with clouds and a flock of birds. Skyroom. This was far better than a grave, which was where he would be if these people hadn't helped him. That Deha and Ixpar both spoke Skolian suggested an Imperial presence on planet. He had to report back to headquarters. By now Imperial Space Command must have listed him as lost and presumed dead.

A dim image formed in his mind: a floating green sphere. When he concentrated, it faded away.

Retrieve image, Kelric thought.

The memory has suffered degradation, Bolt thought. I will try to improve resolution.

As the sphere reappeared, a blur under it resolved into a line of hieroglyphics. It was a message his ship had printed before the crash. Something about Coba. Restriction. Yes. That was it. Coba was under Imperialate Restriction.

It made no sense. The planet was obviously habitable and Kelric recalled no military briefing about a world called Coba. From what he had seen so far, it was an pleasant place, certainly no candidate for quarantine.

Then again, he had only seen one room and a few people. Coba definitely bore investigation. It had gone unnoticed too long.


With the help of the boy who had brought him lunch, Kelric managed to sit up, wincing as the edge of his bodycast jabbed his chest. Pugged primitive, wrapping his body in plaster. Normally his nanomeds would speed the healing of his broken bones, but he wasn't sure how active they were after the damage he had taken during the attack and then the crash on Coba.

As his nurse adjusted the pillows behind his back, Kelric shifted the tray on his lap and waved at the door. "You must know what I mean. The guards outside my room. They always sit at that table, gambling or something. I see them every time someone opens the door." He knew the boy didn't understand Skolian, but he talked to him anyway. He had little else to do. Although he still slept most of the time, he felt well enough now to stay awake a few hours each day.

The youth regarded him curiously. Dressed in blue trousers and a white shirt, he looked more like a school-boy than a nurse. Only the medic's patch and Dahl suntree emblem on the shoulder of his shirt said otherwise. He poured Kelric another glass of tawmilk and offered it to him, but Kelric shook his head.

As the boy persisted, a laugh came from the other side of the room. "Maybe milk is not so good, heh?"

Kelric looked to see Deha Dahl standing in the door arch. She spoke to the nurse in their language and he bowed. Then he withdrew, leaving Kelric alone with the Manager.

"My greetings, Prince Kelricson." She came over to the bed. "Or perhaps you prefer a military title? Tertiary Valdoria?"

"Actually, I prefer Kelric."

"Kelric." She smiled. "Dabbiv says you seem better since we work out this special menu for you."

"Much better." He hesitated, grappling with the awkwardness that always plagued him when he wanted to express something important—like gratitude to the person who had saved his life. "Manager Dahl, what you've done for me—I won't forget."

She watched him with an inscrutable expression. "Do not be so quick to thank me. Almost we didn't bring you here."

"Because of the Restriction?"

"Yes." She sat next to him on the bed. "When we ask for the Restriction, never did we imagine you would happen."

"You asked to be Restricted? Why?"

"We don't want your ISC occupying our world."

He stared at her. "As part of the Imperialate, you would have access to our technology, sciences, arts, nearly a thousand worlds—all of it. You gave that up because you didn't want ISC here?"

"You use loaded words." She spoke carefully. "Others use words such as 'military dictatorship' for your Imperialate."

He tensed. "The Imperator is not a dictator."

She considered him. "Tell me something. What are you prince of? An ancient dynasty, yes?"

"The Ruby Dynasty. But the Rhon has no power anymore."

"The Rhon?"

"My family. That's what the Skolian people call us."

"And what do the Skolian people call the Imperator?"

He regarded her warily. "The Imperator."

"You play games with me. He is your brother, yes?"

Kelric inwardly swore. It would have been better for him had these people been less adept at digging information out of his ship's wreckage. "Half-brother. Kurj and I have the same mother. But he came to his position through work. Not heredity."


"The Imperator."

"So," she said. "You call the Imperialate's dictator by his personal name."

"He's not a dictator, damn it."


"No." The nature of his brother's violent rise to power was territory he had no wish to trod with this stranger. She was already too unsettling.

Heart rate and blood pressure anomaly, Bolt thought. It accessed his optical nerve and a translucent display appeared, superimposed on Deha, with diagrams of Kelric's vital signs.

Terminate display, Kelric thought. You can give a synopsis. Had Bolt been working right, he wouldn't have needed to ask for brief mode; he had long ago set that as the node's default.

The display vanished. Your hypothalamus is producing certain hormones, which in conjunction—

Skip the tech-talk, Kelric thought. Just tell me what's wrong.

Nothing is 'wrong.' Unless you consider sexual arousal a problem.

He flushed. Just what he needed, a voyeuristic computer in his spine.

"Kelric?" Deha asked. "Are you all right?"

He scowled. "I'm fine."

"You look tired." She reached out to brush a curl out of his eyes.

In pure reflex, Kelric grabbed her wrist. As she froze, his mind caught up with his reflexes and he stopped. Bolt's combat libraries could direct reflexes far more complex than grabbing a wrist and the hydraulics that controlled his skeleton could as much as triple his response time. Any more would have required greater than the few kilowatts of power produced by his internal microfusion reactor, generating too much heat for his body to dump even with the reflective adaptations of his skin.

Deha sat utterly still, watching him. Disconcerted, he loosened his grip.

"I didn't mean to startle you," she said.

He rubbed his thumb over her palm. "My reflexes over-do it sometimes."

Her face gentled. Then she withdrew her hand and cleared his lunch tray, setting the remains of his meal on the nightstand. She took a pouch out of her robe and set it on the tray. "I bring you gift."

A gift? He picked up the pouch, making its contents rattle and click.

Deha had the same type of pouch hanging from her belt. She took it off and emptied a profusion of small shapes onto the tray: balls, cubes, polyhedrons, pyramids, disks, squares, rods and more, in every color of the rainbow.

Intrigued, he poured a similar set out of his pouch. "What are they?"


"What do we do with them?"

"Play Quis."

"Is that a gambling game?"

"Sometimes." She pushed the pieces to the edges of the tray, then set a blue cube in the center the tray. "Your move."

"If they're dice, don't we have to roll them?"

Deha shook her head. "We say 'dice' because many centuries ago the pieces, they have numbers and these numbers, they tell you what moves you can make. You pick a piece, roll it out, and the number that comes up tells you—" She paused. "What is this word I want? Elections? No ... Options! Yes. This is the word."

"The number gives you options for doing something?"

"This is right. Options for placing your piece in a Quis structure." Deha lowered her voice, as if revealing a confidence. "Back then, Quis takes less skill. Now we build structures using strategies based only on rules. It takes much more work by the brain." She grinned. "But still we gamble on who wins. So. Make your move."

He laughed. "I've no idea how to play."

"Try anything. We see what happens."

Enjoying himself now, he set a bar on her cube. She pushed a purple cube up against her blue one. He placed a purple bar and she responded with a magenta cube.

"You know, " he said, setting a square in the structure. "I have no idea what we're doing."

"I explain when we finish." Deha snapped her fingers. "But I forget. We must make a wager." She considered. "Two tekals. Is reasonable for beginner."

"What's a tekal?"

"A coin. One tekal buys you a sausage at market."

"I don't have any tekals."

Deha smiled. "You owe me then."

"I might win, you know."

She placed a red cube against her magenta cube. "We see."

He put a disk on top of her cube. "Your move."

"Not my move." She set an orange cube by her red cube. "My game."

"It is?"

"Very definitely."

He counted the dice. "You made more moves than I did. Don't I get to finish the round?"

She regarded him with approval. "Is true, you can finish. But is no way for you to beat me now."

"How did you win?"

"I made a small spectrum." She tapped her cubes. "Blue, purple, magenta, red, orange."

This was certainly a better diversion than arguing with her about his infamous brother. "What does it mean?"

"A spectrum is like a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. Then starts over with red again. Also you can put—what is the word? Interm?" She paused. "Intermediate. You can use intermediate colors if you want, like magenta between purple and red. For small spectrum, the line of dice must be more than four pieces. A grand spectrum is ten or more dice."

"Suppose I had blocked your line of cubes?"

"Ah." She nodded. "You learn fast. A block would stop me. Then I must go in another direction."

"Can you use different shapes?"

"Not in a spectrum. You can in a builder. Color stays the same in a builder and shape changes." She tapped a cube. "The number of sides is the order. Cube has six sides, so it is sixth order." She made a line of dice on the tray: pyramid, pentahedron, cube, heptahedron, octahedron. "This run follows order so it is a builder. If it follows both color and order, it is a queen's spectrum."

He grinned. "If I make a queen's spectrum, will I win back my tekals?"

Deha chuckled. "Maybe." She made a sweeping motion of her hand. "Many more structures and patterns exist. Spectrums and builders are only a start."

"I'd like to learn." He picked up a handful of dice. "If you have time to teach me."

"We all teach you. Everyone's Quis has a different personality." She lowered her voice again. "Really, it is more than gambling. The better one plays Quis, the greater her influence. We ... I keep losing the words. Talk? We talk with Quis. It is like a net that spreads to everyone. The better a person plays the net, the better her position in life."

"Is that why you manage Dahl? Because you play Quis well?"

Deha shrugged. "I have some ability. It is one reason the previous Manager chose me as her successor. But it works both ways. Managing Dahl gives me knowledge that aids my dice."

He regarded her, fascinated. "It sounds like more than a game."

"This is true. If you play Quis well enough, it can tell you stories." Deha considered. "I give an example with Varz Estate." She set a black dodecahedron on the tray. "Varz is a too powerful Estate, second only to Karn. Varz has always challenged Karn for the Ministry. So we must help Karn gain advantage against Varz."

"Why not help Varz?"

She snorted. "I would help a scumrat before Varz."

"Ah." He smiled. "I see."

"So. I build structures that tell about, say, inequities in Varz import practices. I sit at Quis with my aides, they sit with their aides, their aides sit with others. Soon my input into the Quis spreads like ripples in pond. It reaches a logger in Viasa and she says to merchant, 'You know, I read much in the Quis lately. Much about Varz and all of it bad. It is a good thing Karn has the Ministry."'

"Which doesn't sit well with Varz, I take it."

"Ah, but Manager Varz makes her own ripples." Deha lifted a handful of dice. "So the merchant tells the logger, 'You play Quis with dull-wits. If Karn keeps running things, soon we will all pay so much for goods we have no money left for Quis. Then, my friend, you never get paid what I owe you."'

"Who wins?"

"This is the crucial point, yes? Everyone is in the Quis net. With so many people, ripples bounce back and forth, reinforce, cancel, make new ripples." She paused. "Perhaps that is our ultimate wager. Power. Control the Quis and you control the Twelve Estates."

Kelric wanted to ask more, but he was tiring. He leaned back in the pillows to gather his strength for new questions.

"Ai," Deha murmured. "I should let you rest."

"It's all right." He regarded her. "I meant to ask you—what news is there about the starport?"

Her inscrutable look came back. "I wrote the Ministry, as you ask. They verify what I tell you. After your people made the Restriction, they took away their ships. I am sorry. We have no port here."

"There must be some outpost."


"They would have left a base," he said. "I can find it with equipment on my ship."

"The crash destroyed your ship."

That wasn't what he wanted to hear. ISC had started to experiment with combining the EI brain of a Jag starfighter and the biomech web of its Jagernaut pilot. So the Jag's routines could run on Bolt and Bolt's could run on the Jag. When he disconnected from the ship, it usually felt like the mental equivalent of logging off a computer. What he felt now was different, a void, as if part of him had vanished.

Bolt, he thought. Have you had any luck reaching the Jag?

No. However, at this distance from the crash site, it is unlikely I will pick up any significant signal.

Surely you can get at least a residual interaction.

This is a logical assumption. However, I detect nothing.

Kelric considered Deha. "If the crash destroyed my ship that thoroughly, how am I still alive?"

"You don't remember? You ejected."

Bolt, did the Jag eject me?

It considered that option. My records of the crash are too garbled to determine what actually happened.

Kelric felt an unexpected grief at the Jag's destruction. It was an effect he ought to report. The ship's designers needed to know their latest modifications were creating a mental symbiosis between ship's brain and its pilot. But Deha claimed no ISC personnel were on-planet for him to contact. No starport, no base, no outpost, no nothing.

He didn't believe it.

Prepare Kyle probe, he thought.

Your Kyle centers are injured, Bolt thought.

Kelric tensed. Why didn't you say anything before?

I was too damaged. As I effect repairs to myself, I can better monitor you.

If his Kyle centers were injured it meant he had suffered brain damage. Kelric had always known that linking a biomech web to his brain had its risks, but realizing that in theory and facing the reality were two different things.

His Kyle centers were microscopic organs, the Kyle Afferent Body and Kyle Efferent Body. KAB and KEB. The KAB acted as a receiver, its molecular sites activated by fields produced in other people's brains. The KEB acted as a "transmitter," strengthening and modulating the fields his own brain produced. Everyone had a KAB and KEB, but in most people the organs were atrophied. In rare cases like his, the genes that controlled KAB and KEB growth were mutated, unable to carry out their duties. So the Kyle organs continued to grow.

Having an enhanced KAB and KEB, however, wasn't enough to make a Kyle. The brain also had to interpret the signals those organs received and sent. That function was carried out by specialized neural structures called paras, aided by the neurotransmitter psiamine. Most Kyle operators could only decode the moods of other people, but a strong operator could pick up intense thoughts if they came from nearby, particularly if the sender was also a Kyle operator.

Focusing inward, Kelric sensitized his KAB to Deha. It was like brushing the outer seawall of a hidden grotto. Bubbles surfaced in her thoughts: sexual arousal, thoughts of her Estate—

Pain seared his head, vaporizing the link. Blotches danced in his vision.

"So quiet," Deha said. "Is something wrong?"

"I'm just tired." Until he had a better idea what he faced in terms of injuries, he had no intention of revealing his diminished capabilities.

She set aside his tray and helped him ease under the quilt. Sliding closer, she tucked the covers about his body. Having her move so close unsettled him. His last tour of duty had been a nightmare of skirmishes separated by extended periods of isolation while he ran reconnaissance. He hadn't touched a woman in a long time and Deha was no ordinary woman.

When Deha leaned over him, Kelric laid his hand on the small of her back. She stiffened as if a pulse of electricity shot up her spine. She didn't pull away, though. Instead she looked down at his face, her expression gentling.

Then she kissed him.

At first he was too startled to respond. When he recovered, he slid his arms around her waist and returned the kiss.

Warning, Bolt thought. Amorous interaction with a potential enemy is unwise.

Bolt, go away.

I am inside your body. I cannot leave.

Busy with the kiss, Kelric didn't respond.

After a while Deha raised her head, holding herself up with her hands. She reminded him of someone, but he couldn't place who. He caught a wisp of her mood, a sense of affection. Something else was there too. Regret? When he tried to concentrate, a headache lanced his temples. He dropped his arms, his forehead knotting with pain.

"Ai," Deha murmured. "I am sorry. I must let you rest." She stood up by the bed, watching him with her gentle expression, one he had never seen her use with her staff. She touched his hair, her hand brushing his curls. Then she withdrew. As he closed his eyes, he heard the door whisper closed.

Bolt, he thought. I need an analysis of this situation.

The analysis is simple. You shouldn't be kissing someone you don't trust.

Ah, but, what a kiss. Kelric smiled. I still need an analysis of what she told me about there being no ISC base.

You need to sleep. I will run calculations while you are down.

He had given up telling Bolt that humans didn't "go down" like computers when they slept. Bolt had decided its coinage was appropriate and resisted changing it. So Kelric simply closed his eyes and let sleep settle over him.


This ought to be interesting, Captain Hacha thought. They couldn't move Kelric to the dice table, so they moved the table to him, a blue lacquered stand with legs a handspan in length. It was easier for Kelric now that the doctors had removed his bodycast and put him in lighter casts that only went to mid-thigh. He sat up in bed and they set the table over his lap.

They were six players: Hacha and Rev pulled up chairs near the bed, Balv and Llaach sat on the bed, and Ixpar sat cross-legged between Balv and Llaach. Kelric blinked at them, seeming unsure what to do with so many people.

At least he had shown some modesty and put on a shirt. During the heat wave that descended on Dahl, he had been sleeping bare-chested, wearing only pajama trousers split up the sides to accommodate his casts. Although watching him that way had its pleasures, Hacha otherwise failed to see why Deha found him so attractive. He was too big, for one thing. Men shouldn't be taller than women. The idea of a male warrior repelled her.

Llaach adjusted the pillow behind his back and spoke slowly, so he could understand their language. "Are you comfortable?"

He answered in his heavy accent. "Yes. My thanks."

They each picked a die from Hacha's pouch and Rev ended up with the highest ranking piece, an orange heptagon. He opened the session and the game took off.

Hacha built her defense from polyhedrons, a wall blocking the other players. Her offense thrust forward in a phalanx of wedges. Rev attacked with bar-builders, battling her back and forth across the board. Balv tried to make a spectrum, but it kept running afoul of Ixpar's defensive walls. Llaach foundered after only a few moves and Kelric placed his dice randomly.

Then Hacha saw it; Ixpar was taking advantage of her battle with Rev to sneak in an attack. Hacha diverted her phalanx toward a weak spot in the girl's defense. Ixpar deflected the attack, but Hacha had slowed her down. Turning her attention back to Rev, she finally trapped him with one of her favorite moves; hawk's claw—a ring of dice closing like a claw around his highest ranking structure.

"Heh." Rev exhaled. "The win goes to you, Hacha."

Balv smiled. "For a while there I thought Ixpar would get you both."

Hacha nodded to Ixpar. "You played well." It felt strange to omit the title Successor Karn when she spoke to the girl. But she agreed with Deha's decision; it was best not to reveal Ixpar's position to Kelric. The less he knew, the better.

Balv studied the board. "It looks like Rev is second and Ixpar third." He grinned. "But I beat you, Llaach."

Llaach peered at the pieces. "Pah," she grumbled. "You did."

Kelric was obviously trying to follow the conversation. He spoke with halting words. "I am last?"

"Yhee," Balv said. "I'm afraid so."

"I understand not yhee," Kelric said. When Ixpar started to answer him in Skolian, he shook his head. "Coban. So I learn."

Hacha frowned. "Coba is the name of the world. We call our language Teotecan. Yhee is a formal form of the word 'yes."

"The informal form is 'yip'," Balv added. "But you only hear it in slang."

Kelric tried the word. "Yhees."

"Yhee," Rev said.

"Yheez," Kelric said.

Llaach laughed. "It's all right. Say it however you like. Your accent is beautiful."

"And don't be discouraged about losing the game." Balv motioned toward Hacha and Rev. "You're playing with Dahl's best."

"Kelric didn't lose," Ixpar said. "He made a flat-stack. That ranks over Llaach's toppled builder."

What was this? Hacha looked where Ixpar pointed and saw a neat stack of blue disks nestled behind one of Rev's towers. A perfect flat-stack and she had missed it. That irked her. She hadn't expected Kelric even to start a structure.

"I can't believe I never saw that," Balv said.

Kelric tapped the table. "Is—" He hesitated, then asked Ixpar something in Skolian.

"Blue," Ixpar said.

"Table is blue." Kelric tapped his stack. "Also blue. So it hides."

Rev's laugh rumbled. "A camouflage. You'll do well, Kelric."

"I don't believe it," Llaach said. "I got caught by a camouflage."

Ixpar smiled. "Maybe you had other thoughts distracting you."

As the others laughed, Llaach reddened. "Blow off, you oafs."

When Kelric gave Ixpar a questioning look, she said, "Llaach recently took a kasi."

"Kasi?" he asked.

"Husband," Hacha said. "Llaach wed the youth Jevi." It didn't surprise her that Llaach was distracted, married to a man as handsome and charming as Jevi. He reminded Hacha of her own husband. The similarities between the two men ran deeper than appearance; both were dice players in the Dahl Calanya. Sheand Llaach had served on the Calanya honor guard for a time, giving them the rare opportunity to court a Calani. It was true that in letting her wed a Calani, Deha had bestowed her with great honor. But what good was honor when Hacha could only visit her husband instead of living with him? It made her crazy. On top of that, she was stuck with this disagreeable assignment, guarding Kelric.

"Ask Balv or Rev," Ixpar was telling Kelric. "They can show you."

Balv pushed up his sleeve, revealing a gold band around his wrist. "It symbolizes the vow that joins the woman and the man. A man who wears the bands is called a kasi."

Kelric glanced at the bands on Rev's wrists. "All of you have someone?"

Llaach laughed. "We've all been caught." She winked at Ixpar. "Most of us, anyway."

The girl smiled. "I'm keeping my options open."

"You sound like Deha," Balv said.

Kelric's reaction was so subtle that Hacha suspected only she caught it. But she had no doubt; the moment he heard the Manager's name he stiffened.

"Manager Dahl is alone?" he asked.

Hacha spoke brusquely. "By her choice. Deha has loved only Jaym."

"What happen to him?" Kelric asked.

"He died of a fever several years ago," Balv said. "Since then Deha has been—well, different. More distant."

"She doesn't want another Akasi," Hacha said.

"Akasi?" Kelric asked.

"It's the title of a Manager's husband," Ixpar said.

Glancing at Ixpar, Hacha saw the flicker of jealousy on the girl's face. She had been around long enough to recognize that look. It seemed the Ministry Successor was as taken by this offworlder as Deha.

As far as Hacha could see, that meant nothing but trouble.

Excerpted from The Last Hawk by Catherine Asaro. Copyright © 1997 by Catherine Asaro. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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