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Chapter 1

Tira Bouriere leaped upright in bed as her elderly cousin Helga burst in from her own small room of the suite, shouting, “He’s dead! Your sainted father is dead, child!”

Behind Helga, the holovision the old woman had been watching still cast its faint light over the room. The royal suites on two of the four penthouse towers around the quadrangle had visual access to most of the High Secretary’s palace. Other women her age might have spent their free time in gossip, but Helga considered her station—companion and chaperone to the High Secretary’s eighteen-year-old daughter—put her above that. Instead, she spied on the goings and comings, the talk and the actions, of all those living in the sprawling warren of the palace, seat of government and home to the elite of the Pact which ruled four thousand worlds.

Tira pushed her way through the gauze that wrapped her bed like a cloud. “Helga, what’s happened?” she asked. She’d heard the words, but there was no sense to them.

Helga flopped onto a loveseat, hyperventilating. Cousin by convenience, the connection was too diffuse to be recognized—except that the office of High Secretary drew to it relations the way honey draws flies. Even Helga’s Bouriere surname came from her maternal line, and that three generations ago.

“Helga!” Tira repeated.

Helga stared at her from the loveseat. “Your sainted father,” she repeated in a whisper. The utter despair in the old woman’s eyes and voice penetrated to Tira’s understanding, where the words themselves had not.

“Oh, no. Not my father.” For a moment hysteria threatened to overwhelm Tira’s normal good sense. Then, as if a relay had switched in her brain, she became efficient, doing almost by rote the things she had been taught since she was a child. When she was young, the drills for this eventuality had been a game. She had enjoyed out-thinking the evil rebels who strove to endanger the High Secretary. It would have been comforting to make herself believe it was still a game. But this time she knew she would not be permitted to ask for time out.

She resisted her first impulse, to go to the window, knowing that could expose her to discovery and attack. She moved quickly to the inner wall of the reception room. Against the wall was a massive Neo-Empire Revivalist writing table, with thin, spiral legs atop traditional crocodile feet, all in gold. The writing surface was a vast expanse of malachite, edged in beveled gold work. Seating herself, Tira toggled two hidden levers in the table. The green surface lifted up and back, revealing Tira’s internal security hologram station.

On the loveseat Cousin Helga was fanning herself with an infopak, heedless of the damage she might be inflicting on the contents of the tamper-sensitive device. She had unfastened the silver-net fichu around her neck and given it to one of the three servobots who tended to the needs of Tira’s visitors.

At her desk, Tira was trying the fourth of twelve sets of codes that might show her what was happening in her father’s apartments. Normally it didn’t matter that his quarters were two towers away from her, accessible only by a maze of corridors. “It’s wrong,” she muttered, her attractive face marked by worry and the first real touches of fear. She tried another, yet higher, security code. Nothing. Again. More blankness.

After running through all dozen combinations she was forced to admit that there was a blackout on her father’s apartments. With growing apprehension, she tried to reach her brother’s suite, with the same results. Again she refrained from presenting herself at the window, turned and tilted one of the three vanity mirrors so that she could watch the outside in its depths.

“Oh, how distressing it all is,” said Cousin Helga, at last putting the infopak down. “Just when I think I can bear to remember it—”

“Contain yourself, Cousin,” Tira snapped. “Go begin emergency evacuation procedures. At once.”

“Naturally. Sorry. I should have started immediately I reached here.” The old lady stumbled to her feet. “You’ll think I’ve gone foolish on you. And at such a time.”

“Impossible, Cousin Helga,” said Tira more kindly, abandoning her search. It wouldn’t do to totally demoralize her sole ally of the moment.

Two alarms, one shrill and weepy, the other aggressive, went off at once.

Helga shrieked and bolted for the living room of the suite. From Helga’s own room, which no one but she should have been able to enter from the corridor, stamped a squad of armed soldiers in brown uniforms, with Treasury collar flashes.

Tira rose to her feet, indignation warring with fear. As she did so, she pressed the toggle that summoned her own guards, waiting in the corridor. “What are you doing here?”

The man who seemed to be in charge remained motionless as the others fanned out to cover the room. “You must come with us,” he said flatly, seemingly indifferent to her response.

Tira wanted to stomp hard on his foot and pound the heel of her hand into his nose. But there was something so disinterested, so lethal about the man, that she suspected he would not prove the easy victim her guard-instructors were.

“Now,” said the man.

Tira remained frozen.

Suddenly, the tableau was interrupted when the door at the other end of the reception chamber burst open, and a young lieutenant appeared, a squad of twenty jostling in behind him.

The Treasury men did not wait for the new arrivals to get organized. Instantly the chamber was filled with deadly spangles as accelerated glass beads exploded into walls and malachite and flesh.

Tira, true to her own training, found herself crouched beneath her desk, totally helpless, as others battled to decide her fate. Totally helpless? Perhaps not. For her twelfth birthday her father had had installed a fabulously expensive fantasy simulator in her desk. It had been all the rage with her crowd for weeks. One stealthy hand reached up to the keypad set in the malachite.

From the various holographic panels and baffles there sprang forth a steady profusion of monsters. The first was a quite nasty basilisk, jagged spears flashing from his eyes. Then a trio of harpies, each with meat dripping from her talons. A streamlined snail with several leech-like heads undulated along the polished stone floor leaving a very believable trail of slime. A were-jaguar, still human enough to be recognizable, leaped and growled and spat, threatening everyone with daggered hands.

Not being idiots, the soldiers recognized holographic fantasy monsters when they saw them—but not before drill-honed reflexes had spewed beads in all the wrong places. The new arrivals, a little more distant from the fantasy threat, took their opportunity.

The sound crescendoed as the glass battered everything in the room. A gorgeous authentic snow-wood was chewed to sawdust by the crossfire. Many of Tira’s other carefully collected objets d’art were shattered and added their collapse to the cacophony.

Phantoms battled and thundered and rollicked as men fought and died real deaths.

Almost safe beneath her armored desk, Tira was aghast at all the blood, steam rising from it as it welled and gouted like lava out of fallen men. Where it fell, bits of glass mixed with it, like a monstrous sparkling wine. She lay with debris pressing against her cheek, and her hands were starting to feel crusty where the blood was clotting around her fingers. She didn’t think any of it was her own.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” she said to the air. “I’ve got to.”

As if mocking her plea, a gryphon capered by, wings spread and talons extended, lion legs and haunches huge with muscles; its image was penetrated by a lieutenant of her guards, trying to reach her. An injured Treasury soldier was struggling to rise, lost traction on the gore beneath his feet and fell heavily, cutting his hands on the bits of broken glass as he struck the floor and dropped his weapon. The guard lieutenant set his pistol and fired.

“Demoiselle, we must leave now!” In the sudden silence of momentary victory, the lieutenant spoke with an urgency underlined by his grip on her arm. “Come. Hurry.”

Only now aware that the battle was really over, Tira did as she was bid, absently dismissing with a flick of her hand the capering apparitions—who instantly ceased to obscure a scene of mundane carnage. Of the Treasury men, only two seemed likely to survive. One was whimpering steadily, his hands cupped over a foaming, sucking hole in his chest. The other was very pale, huddled in on himself.

“Martyrs of the Guard,” whispered Tira, who had only seen incidents like this in entertainments. She put her hand to her throat and felt the speed of her pulse, fast and light. The smell began to overwhelm her senses . . .

“Come on,” urged Lieutenant Chaney—identified by his helmet and breast clips.

Tira focused on him. “Where?”

“Away from here,” said Chaney. “They’ll be back for you.” He lowered his head. “Look. Demoiselle, you don’t have to listen to anything I say. We both know that. But if you don’t get out of here in pretty short order, you’re going to be in trouble.”

“Right,” she said heavily. “Trouble.” She shivered once, quite violently, then brought herself back under control. “Then let’s go.”

“All right, Demoiselle.” He took her by the arm again. “So you won’t stumble. You don’t have grippers on your soles and I do.”

“Very sensible,” she said, glancing around the corpse-strewn room. Of Cousin Helga there was no sign. Tira decided she would have to ask later, when they were safe. At least she was not one of the ruined bodies on the floor.

The lieutenant led her to the main door, muttering to himself all the way. It took Tira several steps to realize he was talking to his AID. Almost all military had those personal communicating devices. No doubt he was relaying information to his superior. At the door, he leaned through cautiously, then pulled her along by the wrist. She jerked her hand away from him and he turned to glare at her.

She stared back. He might have just saved her life but she was still the High Secretary’s daughter. He nodded, took his hand off her and led the way between two shattered pier mirrors into a space that seemed much wider than it ought to be. “What—?”

“Emergency hologram. It makes the exit look about three inches wide, doesn’t it?” He chuckled. “Come on. There’s . . .” He paused and stepped back between the mirrors.

Even though the secret exit was only a few steps from her suite Tira had had no idea it existed. It was that kind of palace. Through the hologram distortion, Tira could see what the lieutenant was doing: he had reached back to the nearest fallen Treasury soldier and was prying the dead hand from around the pistol. As he ducked back into the exit, he handed it to her. “Here, this is a Samtoepoe A7mark923, capable of semi- or fully automatic fire with a clip capacity of 150 rounds. Don’t use it unless you have to. Sometimes the A7mark923s jam. They cycle too fast.”

“You took it—”

He did not permit her to finish. “I took it from someone who was prepared to use it on you. Remember that, if you start getting sentimental about the Treasury soldiers. They invaded. They don’t deserve your concern.” He waved her toward a protected dropshaft. “Military only” he informed her, indicating the masking. “They’re going to shut these down pretty quickly.”

“You’re right,” said Tira, resolutely slipping the pistol Chaney had given her into her reticule. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

They stepped into the dropshaft.

“I can’t believe you still have your reticule.”

Tira ignored his comment. “I suppose you know what you’re doing.”

“I suppose I do, too, but I’m not real sure quite yet.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You’re all so cocky and above-it-all, it’s a wonder the High Secretary can see far enough down to sign his name to his documents.”

Tira regarded Lieutenant Chaney with petulance. “How can you talk about my father that way?”

“Because I don’t know him? Because I don’t understand him? Come on. Does anyone know him?” asked Chaney.

“Yes, because you don’t know him, or understand him. You don’t know what he goes through every day for . . . Well, people don’t.”

“No, they don’t. And for all I know, the Empire really couldn’t function without him. That’s what they all say. Nobody sees it, but they believe it. And they see how splendidly the High Secretary lives, and how splendidly he entertains, and how those in favor advance more swiftly than those who are not in favor.”

Tira said nothing for a short while. “The assassins weren’t rebels, not the kind you hear about on the news,” she said a short while later. “Jessine wants the right and the power. You know the kind of man Ver is, and what she’s like. They’re ambitious. They enjoy palace coups.” She shifted her position as much as her harness would let her. “Jessine. I hope she’s stopped. I want her stopped right now.” Her determination wilted. “My father. My brother. She got them both.” She averted her face and began to weep. “Twenty-four, that’s all she is. And she got them both.”

For a little while, Chaney left her alone. He was never very good with crying women.

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