"What you have to realize, son, is that almost all of the people who were there at the time are dead. And everybody who's still alive is lying to you about something."
-- General Jos Metadi to an unknown interviewer, some time after the end of the First Magewar.
Errec Ransome -- late of Ilarna, now copilot and navigator of Jos Metadi's Warhammer -- ran up the broad staircase of the Double Moon two steps at a time. In the public rooms behind him, the sounds and smells of raucous celebration filled the air like thick smoke. Metadi's privateers had come back again to Waycross, and the party had just begun.
They'd had a good run this time. Nobody had gotten blown up -- except for Celeyn, and that was his own damned fault -- and the Mageships had dropped out of hyperspace right where Errec had told Jos that they would: cargo ships, big and arrogant, full of the treasures of half a hundred worlds. The Mages hadn't expected serious trouble at a neutral planet so close to their home territory, and they'd counted on the warships escorting them to take care of any trouble that did occur.
They'd been wrong. The Ophelan system was a long way from the main privateering lanes. That was why the cargo ships had chosen it for their fuel and repair stop before heading back across the gap between the Mageworlds and the civilized galaxy. But Ophel wasn't so far away from civilization that Jos Metadi couldn't persuade other privateer captains to follow him there. When the cargo ships and their escorts made the translation from hyperspace, it wasn't just Warhammer that waited at the drop- points for them: it was a whole fleet.
Now that the voyage was over and the share-out done, most of the privateers seemed intent on spending their cut of the proceedings as fast as possible, with the eager help of every bartender and brothel keeper in Waycross.
Jos Metadi had already banked most of his portion -- he hadn't made it out of the Gyfferan slums, and into command of his own ship, by being careless about finances -- but even he hadn't banked it all. The Captain liked money, and with good reason, but he also liked the undoubted pleasures that money could buy.
The Double Moon sold most of them. Ransome was aware, as he hurried up the carpeted staircase, of the seething, sweating presence of the establishment's other patrons. He ignored the pressure of their unspoken desires, and made his way down the narrow, red-carpeted upstairs hall.
Translucent glow-cubes in filigree holders marked each door, but Errec didn't have to read the brass plate outside #7 to know that he'd found the right room. He pounded on the polished wood with his fist -- pounded hard, because the Double Moon had extensive soundproofing underneath its oldstyle facade -- and shouted, "Jos! Are you in there?"
The answer came back, muffled by a treble thickness of wood and insulation: "Go away, Errec. I'm busy."
"Jos, there's a girl downstairs!"
"There's a girl right here. Go away."
Errec tried again. "The one downstairs wants to talk to you!"
Errec laughed under his breath and started back down the hall to the stairs. Jos was likely to take more than a minute to disentangle himself, and somebody ought to keep the lady amused while she was waiting.
The private room downstairs was furnished with carved wooden furniture upholstered in crimson velvet. The lady herself -- fair and petite in a full-skirted gown of frosty blue -- sat bolt upright in one of the high-backed chairs, knees together and hands on knees. A formal mask of black velvet covered her face from well above the eyebrows to halfway down her cheeks. Her mouth looked young, though; surprisingly young, for the aura that surrounded her.
Iron, thought Errec. This one is iron.
He wondered if the two gentlemen standing with her realized it. They were both older than she was, but seemed to have little else in common beyond a firm conviction that being here at all was a very bad mistake. One of them -- a large man, dark and heavily muscled, with strength and training apparent even beneath his fashionable clothing -- stood on the far side of the room, his back against the wall, in a position that afforded a clear view of both doors. Whatever this one's title might be, Errec decided, his work was the selective application of violence in the lady's interest.
The other man was slight and grey-haired, dressed in dark clothing plainly cut out of good cloth. He stood at the lady's left shoulder and gazed about with a quizzical air, as if he'd never been in a place like the Double Moon until this evening. An old family retainer, was Errec's conjecture, keeper of the young noblewoman's reputation . . . or at least, considering where they all currently were, of her virtue.
In spite of Waycross's bad name for violence, the three carried no obvious weapons. That meant they assumed power -- and people with so much unconscious surety of their own power, often had it.
Errec stepped across the threshold. The heavy door swung shut behind him. "Captain Metadi will be with you soon."
The woman nodded. Ice-blonde hair in an elaborate set of curled braids swayed with the motion. Her eyes behind the mask were a bright, startling blue. She said nothing.
Errec was aware of the younger man's assessing gaze: was this one potential trouble, the bodyguard was wondering, or was he a person of neither threat nor consequence? A spacehand's coverall didn't argue for much by way of wealth or position, and -- like the woman and her escorts -- Errec Ransome didn't carry any obvious weapons.
He ignored the two men and spoke to the woman directly. "What is the nature of your request for Captain Metadi?"
The bodyguard's dark face grew even darker. "That is a matter for Her Dignity to discuss with the captain himself."
"I'm Metadi's copilot," Errec said. "I'll learn about the whole business soon enough."
The bodyguard folded his arms across his chest and set his jaw. "Her Dignity wishes it this way."
The door to the private room opened again as they spoke.
"You can tell Errec anything you can tell me," said a familiar voice. As always, Jos Metadi's words had a strong down-home Gyfferan twang, even when he was speaking careful Galcenian. "He'll need to know anyway, if the 'Hammer's going to be part of it."
The lady spoke for the first time.
"Leave us," she said. Her voice was clear and well-bred, with an accent that Errec didn't recognize. Her blue eyes swept from the dark man to Errec and back. "What I have to discuss with Captain Metadi, I will discuss with him alone."
Her other escort, the older man who stood at her shoulder, looked distressed. "My lady -- "
"You too, Ser Hafrey," she said, over his protest. Then, turning again to Metadi, she went on. "I have hired a room, Captain, for three hours' time. I'm told that's the usual span you linger with a woman here."
Metadi shrugged. If he was surprised -- and to Errec, who was as familiar with his moods and expressions as anybody living, he didn't seem to be -- it didn't show on his face. "Sometimes more, sometimes less," he said. "It depends. Lead the way."
The woman stood, her long skirt rustling with the movement, and crossed the room to the inner door. With her hand on the lockplate, she paused.
"Wait for me outside," she told her escorts. "I'll join you afterward. Now, Captain -- "
Jos moved to follow her, catching Errec's eye as he did so. "Same thing," he said; and added, in the thick portside Gyfferan that served as the 'Hammer's business language, "See if anybody on the street knows what's going on here, would you?"
Errec nodded. "There's a cafe," he replied in the same tongue. "The Blue Sun. I'll start there and meet you afterward."
The Blue Sun wasn't far -- a short walk along the noisy, garish Strip. When he got there, the main dining room was crowded with newly-paid free-spacers. Some of them had come to get a cheap meal and a stiff drink before embarking on their evening's carousal. Others -- the ones that Errec was interested in -- were there to buy or sell things of value, information included.
He slid into the first open booth he came to, inspected the menu pad, and signaled for plain bread and cheese and a mug of the local beer. He was in the mood for something quite a bit stronger, but it looked like he'd be holding down this booth for quite a while.
Three hours, he thought, and laughed again, softly, to himself. If the lady was pretty and skillful, Jos sometimes took all night.
Jos Metadi, more amused than not by developments so far, nodded at Ser Hafrey and the bodyguard and followed the young woman into the private room. The door -- an automatic one this time, unlike the oldstyle wooden panels that adorned the more public areas of the Double Moon -- slid closed behind him.
The room contained a small table and two chairs, in the same curved and ornamented style as the furniture of the outer chamber. Heavy brocade curtains obscured the dim alcove in one corner. His interest, already piqued by the lady's mask and her brace of escorts, quickened even further.
Whatever she's got in mind, he thought, it's not the usual.
The lady sat down in one of the chairs, and waved a hand at the other. "Captain Metadi," she said. "Pray be seated, and let us talk."
For a fraction of a second, Jos thought about accepting her invitation at face value. Then he decided to push things a little instead. The lady wanted something from him; he might as well let her know that the price wouldn't be low. He moved over to the table and stood behind the empty chair, resting his hands on the carved arch of its high wooden back.
"First things first. The mask has to come off. I don't make deals with anyone I can't see."
Her mouth curved in a faint smile under the black velvet. "Fair enough, I suppose."
She reached up and undid the tabs holding the mask in place. The black velvet slid away; she caught the mask as it fell, and placed it on the table in front of her.
"There," she said. "Shall we proceed?"
Jos looked at her. She was younger than he'd expected, considering the weight of authority in her voice, with fair, unblemished skin. The contours of her face were clean and pure, saved from arrogance only by the warmth of her mouth and the vivid blue of her eyes. Her brows and lashes were darker than her hair, ash-blonde rather than ice. His glance continued appraisingly downward. She was pleasingly buxom and he found himself imagining -- he wrenched himself back to the present, hoping that the track of his eyes had gone unremarked.
"I'm afraid that you have the advantage of me," he said, pulling out the chair and seating himself as he spoke. "You know me -- by name and reputation, at least. But I don't know you."
The lady regarded him for a moment before seeming to come to a decision. "Very well. I am Perada Rosselin, Domina of Entibor, of the Far Colonies, and of the Space Between."
Entibor? thought Jos, keeping his expression unchanged by an effort of will. Since becoming a privateer, he had needed to learn who ruled which planets, and something of their alliances. The whole tangled nest of them made his head ache sometimes. Who's . . . yes, Veratina. Whoever this is, though, she sure as hell isn't Veratina. But if the old woman's dead . . . I thought that Veratina's heir was a schoolgirl on Galcen.
He looked again at the lady across from him, and revised his estimate of her age downward by several years. At her majority, clearly, or she wouldn't be claiming the title . . . but closer to girl than woman. Not yet twenty, Galcenian, that much was sure.
Don't let her age fool you, hotshot. This girl's been training to sign death warrants since the first day her pudgy little fist could hold a stylus.
He leaned back in his chair. "Well, then, Domina," he said. "What is it that you need me to do?"
"They told me you were quite the direct man," said Perada. She sounded amused. "I see that they were right."
"Deal with me honestly, and I deal honestly in return. But until I know what you want from me, there's nothing else I can say."
"What I want," she said, and for the first time hesitated, as if marshaling her arguments. "You've made a name for yourself, Captain Metadi, and not merely on Gyffer and Innish-Kyl -- the newsreaders on Galcen talk about you as well. They say you are something more than a successful pirate -- "
"Privateer," he corrected. "I bear letters of marque and reprisal."
A whole sheaf of them, in fact, from the Citizen-Assembly on Gyffer and a host of other sources, including the Galcenian Council and the Highest of Khesat -- and Veratina Rosselin herself, by way of House Rosselin's ambassador on Perpayne. But if the young woman across from him didn't know that, Jos Metadi wasn't going to tell her. Knowledge was power, and it was never a good idea to give away power to somebody with whom you were trying to strike a deal.
"My apologies, Captain," Perada said, her expression unruffled. "Privateer. And something more. If the newsreaders don't lie -- and I have excellent sources who say that they do not -- you have proven yourself able to meld independent raiders into a fleet and carry the war to the enemy."
"Enemy?" Jos shook his head. "No. Enemies are personal. None of this is personal with me. I take prizes -- rich ones -- and I take them for the goods and merchandise they carry. If your sources are any good, they should have mentioned that I don't fight warships if I can help it."
"You fight when you must, and you win when you fight." Her voice remained composed. "I have decided. You are the man who will return with me to Entibor and, once there, make a warfleet for me."
The certainty of it nettled him. "You've decided, have you?"
"You will be amply rewarded."
"I have enough money," he said. "And if I want more, I know how to get it. I don't need to cramp my style by putting myself under anybody else's command." He stood up. "I'm sorry, but there's no advantage for me in taking your offer. Now, if you'll excuse me -- "
"No," said the Domina. "I have not given you leave."
"I didn't ask," he said. "I'm a free citizen of Gyffer, and nobody's subject. Which means I come and go as I please, and right now it pleases me to go."
He paused, one hand on the door. "I told you, I don't want money."
"Money isn't the only reward." Her blue eyes were very bright. She reminded him of a gambler just before the last card went down. "Name your price, Captain. I can meet it."
"Sorry," he said. "But I don't play cards with somebody else's deck."
He pressed the lockplate to open the door. Nothing happened. He turned back to the Domina.
"I hope you're the one who set the door to lock behind us," he said. "Because otherwise, I think we've got a problem."
Ser Hafrey gave the Domina and the merchant-captain plenty of time to begin their discussion before he made any move to leave. He checked the lockplate on the private room first, to make certain that all was in order, then moved toward the outer door.
As he did so, he ignored the other man in the room. As Minister of Internal Security for Entibor, Nivome do'Evaan of Rolny shouldn't have come on this journey in the first place. He should have stayed behind on Entibor to make ready for the Domina's accession. But the Rolnian had insisted; had, in fact, exerted the considerable political power of his office to force himself onto the mission.
Perhaps it was better to keep Nivome busy close at hand, where his schemes for advancement could be watched and countered, rather than leaving him to work his machinations in the Palace undisturbed. Nevertheless, Hafrey found the Minister's self-interest distasteful -- and felt, therefore, no obligation to tender his associate any more than the minimum of deference.
Stepping past Nivome, the Armsmaster opened the door and glanced out into the hall. As he had expected, Warhammer's copilot was nowhere in sight. Hafrey stepped back into the room and closed the door before addressing the Minister of Internal Security directly for the first time.
"The copilot's away. We should be going as well."
The Minister's expression of disapproval didn't change. "You, maybe. I'm staying right here."
"The word Her Dignity used was 'leave'."
Nivome didn't move from his position against the wall. "The Domina of Entibor should not be wandering the streets of Waycross unprotected."
Ser Hafrey allowed himself a faint smile. "I doubt that she will be."
He bowed -- the slight inclination of formal politeness, nothing more -- and added, "Nevertheless, we must all comport ourselves according to our inclinations. I'll wait for you at the ship."
The Armsmaster departed from the Double Moon without looking back, and made a slow and introspective passage through Waycross to the docks. All along the dockside thoroughfares, the ranks of grounded starships waited in their bays, each enclosure separated from the next by privacy walls looming even taller than the ships themselves.
The gates of Warhammer's bay stood open. From the look of things, the Innish-Kyllan dockworkers had begun to offload cargo while the captain and his copilot worked off their nerves and excess energy along the Strip.
Ser Hafrey lingered in the shadows for a while, watching as the skipsleds ran in empty and departed stacked high with shrouded loads -- the pick of the loot from Metadi's Ophelan run. The worklights mounted on top of the privacy walls were harsh and blue-white, mimicking in their spectra the suns of another world.
Warhammer was an ugly vessel, at least to the Armsmaster's exacting eye -- a huge, flattened disk that stood on heavy metal landing legs. Its cargo doors gaped open, with ramps leading down to the floor of the bay. A shower of blue- white sparks rained from the underside of the freighter, where somebody was making repairs to the skin of the ship.
After a few minutes Hafrey moved away again, continuing toward his own ship: an Entiboran Crown Courier, small and fast and discreetly armed against the day when speed alone would not answer. He showed his identification to the scanner at the entry forcefield and walked through the main passageway to the bridge. Once there, he settled back in the command chair, laced his fingers in his lap, and closed his eyes, calming himself and bringing his thoughts into a better order.
If all went well, he told himself, matters would proceed as he intended. If not, then he would deal with reality as it developed. Ser Hafrey was old -- far older than he gave others to understand, or than he ever admitted even in his most private thoughts -- and he had schooled himself long ago to accommodate the universe when it decided to change itself around him.
"Whoever locked the door," Perada said, "it wasn't me."
She regarded the captain uncertainly as she spoke. She'd been expecting an older man; not as old as Ser Hafrey, perhaps, but at least someone well into the middle of life. Jos Metadi, however, looked barely a decade older than she was herself.
Tall and tawny-haired, he wore dark trousers and a spidersilk shirt underneath a crimson velvet coat fastened with massive gold buttons. An odd combination, she would have thought -- but thanks to Ser Hafrey's preliminary report, she knew that rich, almost gaudy, clothing was the traditional mark of a prominent captain, an advertisement of his success in the same way that the heavy blaster, its holster tied down to his thigh, was a mark of his violent profession.
Metadi had come a long way in a short time, then, and he wanted to go even farther. A good sign, she hoped. Just the same, he was an untried quality. Veratina's court on Entibor hadn't contained anyone like him; neither had the finishing school on Galcen. She drew a careful breath and tried for a note of careful detachment.
"You say we might have a problem?"
He glanced at her again and nodded. "I'm not sure if you're the target, or if I am, or if it's the two of us together -- but I'm feeling more like someone has me locked and tracking with firecontrol than makes me comfy."
"Oh." At least, she reflected, Captain Metadi had spoken of "we" and "us." Maybe there was a chance she could bring him around after all.
Great-aunt 'Tina would be furious -- the Head of House Rosselin taking a Gyfferan nobody for Consort!
She was willing to go that far if she had to. Ser Hafrey hadn't approved of the idea when she'd broached it to him on the hyperspace run to Innish-Kyl, but he knew better than to gainsay the Domina on a dynastic matter.
Captain Jos Metadi was not, after all, simply a Gyfferan nobody. His family and his early history might be untraceable -- if Ser Hafrey said that a man's lineage was obscure, no conventional records check was going to provide the information -- but his current fame and his known accomplishments were matters of established fact. Jos Metadi was, by anybody's reckoning, the foremost captain among the privateers of Innish-Kyl, and the only one who had proved consistently able to bring other ships under his command.
If he can do it for a rabble of pirates, she told herself, he can do it for me.
Meanwhile, the Captain was rummaging under the tapestries that covered the walls of the private room.
"Damned thing's back here somewhere," she heard him mutter under his breath. He let the tapestry drop back against the wall. "I wasn't counting on a room with only one way out."
"My fault, I'm afraid. Ser Hafrey insisted -- the better to control the circumstances of our discussion, he said."
"I hope he hasn't controlled us right into a bloody ambush," Metadi commented. His Gyfferan accent was stronger than it had been, and there was an edge to his voice that hadn't been there when he came in. "I suppose he insisted on scanning the room for spy-eyes and snoop-buttons?"
"Of course," she said. "But there weren't any."
"No electronics." Metadi was prowling about the perimeter of the room, looking for she didn't know what. "Then how would they . . . hah!"
He'd come to the alcove with the bed, where heavy curtains swagged across the entrance partly hid and partly revealed the cushioned interior. He seized the fabric of the curtains with one hand and jerked it aside. Light came into the alcove from the glowcubes that illuminated the room itself, and Perada saw with a faint sense of shock that the entire back wall of the alcove was a single large mirror.
She blinked, and swallowed. "What? Surely you don't -- not now?"
Metadi wasn't listening. He picked up one of the high- backed wooden chairs, lifted it over his head, and threw it full-force into the alcove. The chair hit the mirror with a tremendous splintering crash. Shards of silver-backed glass fell down like spangles onto the bed below. Where the mirror had been, Perada saw an empty hole -- and beyond that, a small room with walls of dead black, and a pale, clerkish-looking man with an expression of intense surprise on his otherwise unremarkable face.
"One-way glass," said Metadi. He'd drawn that heavy blaster she'd noticed earlier, and was pointing it at the clerk -- which explained, Perada thought, why the man hadn't made any attempt to run away. "I expect that news of our chat is all over Innish-Kyl by now. In a week most of the civilized galaxy will know about it. In two, even the Magelords will know."
"You expected something like this, didn't you?"
"Let's say it doesn't surprise me very much."
By now, Metadi was inside the black-walled cubicle, presenting the frightened clerk with a close-range view of his blaster. "Maybe our friend here is nothing but a random pervert who bought himself an evening at the peep-show -- but it's a lot more likely that he's a paid spy."
The clerk turned even paler than before. "No, no. . . ."
"A pervert, then," said Metadi. "In that case, gentlesir, it will only increase your enjoyment if I tie you securely before we go."
He glanced about the little room, frowning slightly. Perada thought that he seemed to be looking for something.
"The curtain ropes," she said. "Will those do?"
"Good thinking. Pull 'em down."
The ropes were thick and sturdy underneath their velvet casings. Perada worked quickly, and soon had an armful of them ready to pass across the glass-strewn bed to Captain Metadi, who holstered his blaster and set about binding and gagging the unfortunate clerk.
"There," he said when he was done. He looked down at the clerk, now trussed and tied like a fowl for the roasting. "I wouldn't struggle, by the way, if I were you. You'll only strangle yourself."
"He isn't struggling," Perada felt obliged to point out. "He's too scared."
"Smart man," Metadi said. He extended a hand to help her scramble over the couch. "There you are, Domina. Let's go."
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.
The Gathering Flame Copyright © 1995 by Debra Doyle & James D. Macdonald
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.