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The Ruby Dice

Written by Catherine Asaro
Illustrated by Phil Renne



The night mourned with silence, as if it were a sonata with no music left to play. Kelric sat on the bed, in the dim light, and watched the woman sleep. White hair curled around her face. Her skin was smooth, with only a few wrinkles, but it had a translucent quality. Her torso barely rose and fell with her shallow breaths. The crook of her nose, broken decades ago, shadowed her cheek. She had never wanted it fixed, though he could have given her anything, anything at all, any riches or wealth or lands or gifts.

Anything except her life.

"Jeejon," he whispered. A tear formed in his eye, and he wiped it away with the heel of his hand.

She seemed small under the blankets, wasted away. He had searched out every remedy medical science could provide, but it was too late. By the time he had met Jeejon, her body had nearly finished its span of life. Trader slave architects had designed her to last sixty years, and she had been fifty-seven when his path crossed hers. His age. But he had benefited from treatments to delay his aging his entire life, even nanomed species passed to him by his mother in the womb. He had the health and vitality of a man barely forty. Jeejon had received nothing. Her owners had considered her a machine with no more rights than a robot. Kelric had managed to extend her three years to nine, but now, at sixty-six, her body had given out.

A rustle came from the doorway. He looked around to see Najo, one of his bodyguards, a man in the stark black uniform of a Jagernaut Secondary, with a heavy Jumbler in a holster on his hip.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, sir," Najo said. "But you have a page on your console."

Kelric nodded tiredly. Nothing could stop the Imperialate in its teeming vibrancy, nine hundred worlds and habitats, a trillion people spread across the stars. It slowed for nothing, not even him, its Imperator.

He rose to his feet, watching Jeejon, hoping for a sign she would awake. Nothing happened except the whisper of her breath.

Kelric went with Najo. His other bodyguards were in the hall outside: Axer, a burly Jagernaut Tertiary whose shaved head was tattooed with linked circles; and Strava, tall and stoic, a Jagernaut Secondary, her hair cut short. They had accompanied him here to his stone mansion above a valley of green slopes and whispering trees. He lived in the Orbiter space station, which had perfect weather every day; the house required neither glass in its windows nor doors in its archways. Its big, airy spaces accommodated his large size, as did the lower gravity in this part of the station, two-thirds the human standard.

He didn't need bodyguards in his home; the entire space habitat protected him. Najo and the others had come today as a buffer. They stood between him and the rest of humanity, to give him privacy in his last days with Jeejon.

Even so. His officers had to be able to reach him. As Imperator, he commanded all four branches of Imperial Space Command: Pharaoh's Army, Imperial Fleet, Jagernaut Forces, and Advance Services Corps. He didn't rule the Imperialate; that job went to a contentious, vociferous Assembly of elected representatives. But Kelric had the loyalty of ISC.

He crossed his living room, a large space of polished grey stone. Gold silhouettes of desert landscapes glowed on the walls at waist height. At a console by the far wall, hieroglyphics floated above a flat holoscreen. The message was from his aunt, Dehya Selei. The Ruby Pharaoh. She descended from the ancient dynasty that had ruled the Ruby Empire thousands of years ago. As a scholarly mathematician, she was far different from those ancient queens, but she wielded a vast and uncharted power in the shadowy mesh of communications that wove the Imperialate together.

She could have paged his gauntlet, but she had probably realized it would be an intrusion. Her message glowed above the holoscreen in three-dimensional hieroglyphics:

Kelric, we've a diplomatic glitch with the Allied Worlds of Earth. It isn't urgent, but as soon as you have a chance, I'd like to brief you. — Dehya.

The shape of the glyphs encoded signs indicating her regret for disturbing him. He rested his palm on the screen, and the holos faded above his skin. Thank you, he thought to her, for knowing he couldn't leave Jeejon. He needed more time here before his voracious responsibilities demanded his attention.

Although an elected Assembly governed the Imperialate now, their civilization had never let go of its dynastic roots. As a member of the Ruby Dynasty, Kelric had inherited his position as Imperator. He commanded one of the largest militaries in human history—yet all his power, all his titles and lineage and wealth meant nothing, for they couldn't stop his wife from dying.

* * *

Kelric had never understood his bedroom. This mansion had belonged to his half-brother, Kurj, a previous Imperator. Kurj had been a huge man, tall and massively built, and Kelric looked a great deal like him. The house was all open spaces and stone, with no adornment except the minimalist gold silhouettes. Kelric had thought of adding color to the grey walls, but he rather liked it this way. And with Jeejon here, the place had always seemed warm.

Today the bedroom echoed with emptiness. Breezes wafted in through windows with no panes. The bed stood in the middle of the stone floor, almost the only furniture. Walking to it, he felt as if he were crossing a desert. Jeejon hadn't stirred. He climbed up on the dais, and with a sigh, he lay beside her.

"Kelric?" Her voice was wispy.

He pushed up on his elbow and looked at her. She watched him with pale blue eyes, worn and tired, wrinkles at their corners.

His voice caught. "My greetings of the morning."

"Is it . . . morning?"

"I think so." He hadn't been paying attention.

Her mouth curved in the ghost of a smile. "Come here. . . ."

He hesitated, wanting to hold her but afraid. He was so large, with more strength than he knew what to do with, and she had become so very fragile.

"I don't break that easily," she said.

Kelric drew down the covers. She was wearing that white sleep gown he loved. He pushed off his boots, then lay on his back and pulled her into his arms. She settled against his side, resting her head on his shoulder. They stayed that way, and he listened to her breathing. Each exhale was a gift, for it meant she lived that much longer.

"I remember the first time I saw you," she said.

"At that mining outpost."

"Yes." She sighed. "You were so incredibly beautiful."

He snorted. "I was so incredibly sick."

"That too."

The memories were scars in his mind. He had been one among millions of refugees caught in the aftermath of the Radiance War that devastated both the Imperialate and Trader empire. Alone and unprotected, he had feared to reveal his identity lest he risk assassination. Not that it had really mattered; no one would have believed him. He had been dying, stranded on a mining asteroid, his body in the last stages of collapse. Jeejon was processing people through the port. A former Trader slave, she had escaped to freedom during the war. If she hadn't taken him in, he would have died, alone and in misery.

He laid his head against hers. "You saved my life." If only he could do the same for her.

She was silent for awhile. Then she said, "You were kind."

Although he laughed, his voice shook. "I made you a Ruby consort. That's cruel more than kind." One reason he lived here, instead of on the capital world of the Imperialate, was so she wouldn't have to deal with the elegantly cutthroat imperial court.

"It has been a treasure." Her voice was barely audible. "I was born a slave. I die a queen."

His pulse stuttered. "You won't die."

"It was a great act of gratitude, to marry me because I saved your life."

"That's not why I married you." He wasn't telling the full truth, but he had grown to love her.

She breathed out, her body slight against his. "When we met, you were wearing gold guards on your wrists."

Kelric tensed. "I took them off."

"They were marriage guards."

Had she known all these years? "Jeejon—"

"Shhhh," she whispered. "I never knew why you left her."

He felt as if he were dying inside. "Don't."

"You never went back to her. Even though you love her."

"You're my wife. I don't want to talk about someone else. Not now." Not when they had so little time left.

She pressed her lips against his chest. "No one knows what happened to you during the war, do they? It isn't just me . . . you never told anyone about those eighteen years you vanished."

"It doesn't matter." Moisture gathered in his eyes.

Her voice was low. "Such a tremendous gift you have given me, waiting while it took me nine years to die."

"Jeejon, stop."

"Someday . . . you must finish that chapter of your life you left behind for me."

He cradled her in his arms. "You can't die."

"I love you, Kelric."

"And I, you." His voice broke. "Always."

"Good-bye," she whispered.

"Don't—" Kelric froze. Her breathing had stopped. Somewhere an alarm went off, distant, discreet, horrifying.

"No." He pulled her close, his arms shaking, and laid his cheek against her head. "Jeejon, no."

She didn't answer.

Kelric held his late wife, and his tears soaked into her hair.



"Jeremiah Coltman," Dehya said.

Kelric looked up from the console where he was scanning files on army deployments. He and Dehya were in one of the glossy offices that honeycombed the hull of the space station.

"What?" he asked.

She regarded him from her console, a slender woman with long hair, sleek and black, but streaked with white, as if frost had iced the tendrils curling around her face. Translucent sunset colors overlaid her green eyes, the only trace she had of her father's inner eyelid. Kelric didn't have the inner lid either, but he had his grandfather's metallic gold eyes, skin, and hair, modifications designed to adapt humans to a too-bright world.

"Jeremiah Coltman," she repeated. "Do you remember?"

"I've no idea," he said.

"That boy from Earth. About a year ago we had trouble with the Allied Worlds over him."

Kelric searched his memory, but nothing came to him. Bolt, he thought, accessing his spinal node. You have anything on him?

His node answered via bioelectrodes in his brain that fired his neurons in a manner he interpreted as thought. Jeremiah Coltman was detained on a Skolian world. I'm afraid my records are spotty.

He remembered then. It had come up the day Jeejon died. He recalled little from that time, and he hadn't recorded his memory well in the long days that followed. Even now, nearly a year later, he avoided the memories. They hurt too much.

"I thought the man they locked up was an adult," Kelric said. "A professor."

"An anthropology graduate student." Dehya was reading from her console. "He spent three years on one of our worlds while he wrote his dissertation. Huh. Listen to this. They didn't throw him in prison. They like him so much, they won't let him go home."

Kelric turned back to his work files. Absently, he said, "Can't somebody's embassy take care of it?"

"I'm not sure," she said.

It surprised him she was spending time on it. Dehya served as Assembly Key, the liaison between the Assembly and the vast information meshes that networked the Imperialate, not only in spacetime, but also in Kyle space. Physics had no meaning in the Kyle; proximity was determined by similarity of thought rather than position. Two people having a conversation were "next" to each other no matter how many light-years separated them in real space. It made possible instant communication across interstellar distances and tied the Imperialate into a coherent civilization. But only those few people with a nearly extinct mutation in their neural structures could power the Kyle web. Like Dehya. As Assembly Key, she had far more pressing matters to attend than a minor incident from a year ago.

"Ah, but Kelric," she said. "It's such an interesting incident."

Damn! He had to guard his thoughts better. He shielded his mind, fortifying his defenses until nothing could rise too close to the surface. "Stop eavesdropping," he grumbled.

She smiled with that eerie quality of hers, as if she were only partly in the real universe. "He won a prize."

"Who won a prize?"

"Jeremiah Coltman. Something called the Goldstone." She glanced at her console. "It's quite prestigious among anthropologists. But his hosts won't let him go home to receive it. That caused a stir, enough to toggle my news monitors."

Kelric felt a pang of longing. Had he been free to pursue any career, he would have chosen the academic life and become a mathematician. He and Dehya were alike that way. Those extra neural structures that adapted their brains to Kyle space also gave them an enhanced facility with abstract disciplines.

"Why won't they let him go?" Kelric said. "Where is he?"

"Never heard of the place." She squinted at her screen. "Planet called Coba."

He felt as if a freighter slammed into him. Jeejon's words rushed back from that moment before she died: You never told anyone where you were those eighteen years.

"Kelric?" Dehya was watching him. "What's wrong?"

He refocused on her face. Mercifully, his mental shields were still in place. He didn't think she could pick up anything from him, but he never knew for certain with Dehya; she had a mental finesse unlike anyone else. So he told the truth, as best he could. "It reminded me of Jeejon."

Sympathy softened her sculpted features. "Good memories, I hope."

He just nodded. His family believed he had been a prisoner of war during the eighteen years he vanished. He let them assume the Traders had captured him, and that he didn't want to speak of it. That was even true for the final months. But he didn't think Dehya had ever fully believed it. If she suspected he was reacting to the name Coba, she would pursue the lead.

He had to escape before she sensed that his disquiet went beyond his memories of Jeejon. Dehya's ability to read his moods depended on how well the fields of her brain interacted with his. The Coulomb forces that determined those fields dropped off quickly with distance; even a few meters could affect whether or not she picked up his emotions.

He rose to his feet. "I think I'll take a break."

She spoke softly. "I'm sorry I reminded you."

His face gentled, as sometimes happened around Dehya. She was one of the few people who seemed untroubled by his silences and reclusive nature. "It's all right."

Then he left the chamber, walking in long strides, his steps lengthened by the lower gravity. Alone, he headed back to his large, cool, empty house.

* * *

Kelric sat in his living room with no lights except the gold designs on the walls. No sunlight slanted through the open windows, but the bright day diffused into his home. He had settled on the couch, one of the few pieces of furniture in the huge room.

He sat and he thought.

Coba. It had taken eighteen years of his life. What would it do to Jeremiah Coltman? Would his unwilling presence stir that world as Kelric's had done, until its culture erupted into war? Compared to the interstellar Radiance War that had raged between the mammoth Trader and Skolian empires, Coba's war had been tiny. But it had ravaged its people. And he, Kelric, had caused it. Coltman was a scholar, not a warrior, but the young man's presence would still exert an influence.

Kelric spoke to the Evolving Intelligence, or EI, than ran his house. He had named it after an ancient physicist who had illuminated mysteries of relativistic quantum mechanics.

"Dirac?" he asked.

A man's rich baritone answered. "Attending."

"Find me everything you can about Jeremiah Coltman."

Dirac paused. "He was born in Wyoming."

"What's a wyoming?"

"A place on Earth."

"Oh." That didn't help much. "What about his graduate school?"

"He earned his doctorate in anthropology from a school called Harvard for his study of human settlement on the planet Coba. He spent three years working on a construction crew while he wrote his dissertation. One year ago, a Coban queen selected him for a Calani. I have no definition of Calani."

"I know what it means." Kelric leaned back and closed his eyes. Queen was the wrong word for the women who ruled the Coban city-estates. They called themselves Managers. In Coba's Old Age they had been warriors who battled constantly, but in these modern times they considered themselves civilized. Never mind this atavistic penchant of theirs for kidnapping male geniuses.

Dirac continued. "Coltman's family and members of the Allied diplomatic corps have tried to free him."

"Any success?" Kelric asked.

"So far, none. He agreed to abide by Coban law when they let him live on their world."

"What about this award he won?"

Dirac paused. "Apparently the Coban queen relented enough to send his doctoral thesis to his advisor at Harvard. The advisor submitted it to the awards committee. At twenty-four, Coltman is the youngest person ever to win the Goldstone Prize."

Kelric was grateful the fellow had received the honor, not because he knew anything about anthropology, but because it had caused enough of an outcry to catch Dehya's attention.

"What do you have on Coba?" Kelric asked. His outward calm didn't match his inner turmoil. He had avoided speaking that question for ten years, lest someone notice and want to know why Coba interested him. As long as he ignored Coba, no one had reason to suspect its people had imprisoned a Ruby heir for eighteen years.

"Coba is a Skolian World," Dirac said. "Restricted Status. No native may leave the planet. They are denied contact with the Imperialate. The world has one automated starport, a military refueling post that's rarely used. Skolians who voluntarily enter the Restricted zone forfeit their citizenship."

Kelric waited. "That's it?"

"Yes." The EI sounded apologetic.

Relief washed over him. It was even less than he expected. Restricted Status generally went to worlds inimical to human life or otherwise so dangerous they required quarantine. The Cobans had asked for the status, and ISC granted it because Coba was so inconsequential that no one cared.

Kelric's Jag fighter had crashed on Coba after he escaped a Trader ambush. The Cobans should have taken him to the starport. He would have died before they reached it, but the Restriction required they do it. Instead they saved his life. By the time he recovered, they had decided never to let him go. They feared he would bring ISC to investigate the Restriction. They had been right. That had been before he understood how the Imperialate could destroy their unique, maddening, and wondrous culture.

Kelric couldn't fathom why they had let Coltman study them. He rose to his feet, and his steps echoed as he walked through the stone halls of his house, under high, unadorned ceilings.

His office had a warmer touch. Jeejon had put down rugs, dark gold with tassels. Panels softened his stark walls with scenes of his home world, plains with silvery-green reeds and spheres adrift in the air. In some, the spindled peaks of the Backbone Mountains speared a darkening sky.

He sat at his desk, and it lit up with icons, awaiting his commands. He turned off every panel. Then he opened a drawer and removed his pouch. The bag was old and worn, bulging with its contents. He undid its drawstring and rolled out his Quis dice.

The dice came in many shapes: squares, disks, balls, cubes, rods, polyhedrons, and more. Not only did he have the full set carried by most Cobans, his also included unusual shapes, stars, eggs, even small boxes with lids.

Dice and Coba. They were inextricably blended. All Cobans played Quis, every day of their lives, from the moment they were old enough to hold the dice until the day they died. It was one giant game, the life's blood of a world. They gambled with Quis, educated with the dice, gossiped with it. Scholars built philosophies based on the game. The powers of Coba used it to gain political influence. For a Manager to hold her realms and prosper, she had to master Quis at its top levels.

Then there were Calani.

The few men honored as Calani were profoundly gifted at Quis. They lived in luxury and spent their lives playing dice. They provided strategy for the Manager; as such, they served not only as advisors, but also as a weapon she wielded in the flow of power among the Estates. Managers had ten to twenty Calani; together, they formed her Calanya. The stronger a Manager's Calanya, the more she could influence the network of Quis that molded Coba's culture. Quis meant power, and a Manager's Calanya was her most valuable asset.

Only Calani owned jeweled dice. The white pieces were diamond; the blue, sapphire; the red, ruby. The opals had many hues that allowed Kelric to manipulate color rank when he built structures. Over the decades, his gold dice had become worn, their metal less durable than iron or copper.

Calani paid a steep price for the spectacular luxury of their lives. They remained secluded. They saw no one but the Manager and the few visitors she allowed. They swore never to read, write, or speak to anyone Outside the Calanya. Nothing was allowed to contaminate their Quis, for anyone who succeeded in manipulating their game could damage the Estate, even topple the Manager from power. Managers shielded their scholarly Calani from outside influences with the single-minded resolve of their warrior queen ancestors.

To symbolize Jeremiah, Kelric chose a silver ball, one of his higher-ranked pieces. He built structures involving the ball and let them develop according to complex and fluid rules. A Calani and his dice were two halves of a whole, each affecting the other. His skill molded the structures, but the complexity of the game and its often unexpected evolution informed their design just as much. Calani and Quis: they created each other.

He had intended to model Coban politics and examine what they revealed about Jeremiah. Instead, his patterns mirrored the history of his people. He wasn't certain what his subconscious was up to, but he let the structures evolve. Six millennia ago, an unknown race had taken humans from Earth and moved them to the world Raylicon. Then they vanished. No one knew why and they left behind nothing but dead starships. Over the centuries, using libraries on those ships, the humans had developed star travel. They built the interstellar Ruby Empire and established many colonies, including Coba. But the empire soon collapsed, destroying the starships and stranding the colonies. Four millennia of Dark Ages followed.

When the Raylicans finally regained the stars, they split into two empires: the Traders, with an economy based on slavery; and Kelric's people, the Skolian Imperialate. Since then, Skolia had been rediscovering ancient colonies like Coba.

The people of Earth had a real shock after they developed space travel and went exploring: their siblings were already out here, two huge and bitterly opposed civilizations. The Allied Worlds of Earth became a third. Unlike their bellicose neighbors, however, they had no interest in conquering anyone. They just sold things. In his philosophical moments, Kelric doubted either his people or the Traders would inherit the stars. While they were busy throwing world-slagging armies at each other, the Allieds would quietly take over by convincing everyone they couldn't survive without Allied goods. Imperial Space Command had an incredible ability to expand to new worlds, but it paled in comparison to Starbytes Coffee.

Earth's success in the interstellar marketplace, however, depended on maintaining civil relations with Skolia and the Traders. They obviously had no intention of upsetting their relations with the Imperialate over one graduate student. The moment Jeremiah had set foot on Coba, he forfeited his rights as an Allied citizen and became subject to the Restriction.

Kelric blew out a gust of air. He had to get Jeremiah out of there, and do it without alerting anyone. The Restriction protected Coba's extraordinary culture—and his children.

He sat back, staring at the Quis structures that covered his desk. "Dirac."

The EI's voice floated into the air. "Attending."

Kelric knew if he continued to ask about Coba, someone might notice. His interactions with Dirac were shielded by the best security ISC had to offer. But he knew Dehya. If she became curious, she could break even his security. He was taking a risk. But it had been so long, and he had so little time left.

He took a breath. "I need you to find a Closure document. It was written ten years ago, just after the Radiance War." He tilted his chair back until he was gazing at the stone ceiling far above his head. The silence of the house surrounded him. Outside his window, wind rustled in the dapple-trees like children whispering together.

"Did you write it?" Dirac asked.

"That's right," Kelric said. "I was serving on a merchant ship. The Corona." He had escaped Coba in a dilapidated shuttle that barely managed to reach another port. He hadn't had credits enough even to buy food, let alone repair the aging shuttle. The job on the Corona had offered a way out.

"I have records of a vessel fitting that description," Dirac said. "Jaffe Maccar is its captain."

"That's it. I filed a Closure document with the ship's legal EI."

A long silence followed. Finally Dirac said, "I find no record of this document."

Maybe he had hidden it better than he thought. Either that, or it was lost. "It's encrypted," he said, and gave Dirac the key.

After a moment, Dirac spoke crisply. "File six-eight-three, signed by Kelric Skolia. Marriage to Ixpar Karn Closed. If Closure isn't reversed in ten years, Kelric Garlin Valdoria Skolia will be declared dead, and his assets will revert to his heirs. Ixpar Karn and two children are named as beneficiaries." The EI paused. "Your listed assets are extensive."

"I suppose."

"In one-hundred-eleven days," Dirac said, "Ixpar Karn will be one of the wealthiest human beings alive."

Even though Kelric had known this was coming for ten years, it still rattled him. "Ixpar doesn't know."

"Do you wish me to cancel the document?"

"I'm not sure."

"You aren't dead," Dirac pointed out.

"If you cancel it, I'll be married to Ixpar again." The Closure didn't become permanent until the end of ten years. It was usually done when someone's spouse vanished, to declare that person legally dead. Generally, the abandoned spouse invoked the Closure, not the person who disappeared.

"Is marriage to Ixpar Karn a problem?" Dirac asked.

Kelric thought of Jeejon. Grief didn't end on a schedule. It receded, yes, but it crept up on you like a mouse under the table, until one day you looked down and saw it crouched in your home, watching you with pale eyes, still there after all this time. It was true, he had married Jeejon in gratitude. Maybe he had never felt the soul-deep passion for her that he had with Ixpar, but he had loved Jeejon in a quieter way. She had given up everything she owned to save his life, even believing he was deluded to think he was the Imperator. She had never expected anything in return, but he had sworn to stand by her.

Dirac spoke. "Sir, the three people named as your heirs live on Coba. I don't think it's legal for inhabitants of a Restricted world to inherit from a Skolian citizen."

"I'm the Imperator," Kelric grumbled. "If I say it's legal, it's legal."

"According to Imperialate law, that isn't true."

Kelric scowled at the ceiling. Unlike his officers, his EI had no qualms about contradicting him.

"Who is going to tell me no?" Kelric asked.

"That would be complicated," Dirac acknowledged. "May I ask a question?"

"Go ahead."

"Why set up Closure for yourself?" The EI sounded genuinely puzzled, as opposed to an AI, which only simulated the emotion. "You aren't the deserted spouse."

"I was unprotected, in a volatile situation." Painful memories rose within him. "I left my children on Coba so they would be safe and taken care of in case anything happened to me. If I died, I wanted to make sure they and Ixpar inherited."

"Yet nothing happened to you."

He grimaced. "I was kidnapped by Traders and sold as a slave."

"Oh." Another pause. "Are you saying you became a Trader slave after you signed this document?"

"That's right."

"But the document is only ten years old. Less, in fact."


"It was my understanding the Traders captured you twenty-eight years ago. Not ten."

Kelric didn't answer.

"When you die," Dirac added, "this document becomes public."

"My heirs could hardly inherit otherwise." He had wrestled with that decision, knowing it would draw attention to Coba. As long as he could shield both Coba and his family, he would do so. But if he ever had to choose, his wife and children came first. If he died, the Closure would ensure they had his name and the multitude of protections that came with it.

And yet . . . he could protect Coba now in ways he couldn't have imagined ten years ago when, as a desperate refugee, he had written that will.

Dirac suddenly said, "This Closure document gives a new twist to the Hinterland defenses."

Kelric stiffened. "I have no idea what you mean."

"The Hinterland Deployment. One of your first acts as Imperator ten years ago. The military presence you established in sector twenty-seven of the Imperialate hinterlands."

"It was vital," Kelric said. "We needed to stop Traders from using that region of space."

"No indications existed they were doing so," Dirac said.

Kelric's advisors had told him the same. He gave Dirac the same answer he had given them. "That was the problem. No one paid attention to that sector. Had the Traders set up covert operations there, we might never have known."

"This is true." Dirac waited a beat. "How interesting that the Coban star system is the most heavily guarded region of that deployment."

Damn. "Delete that from your memory."

"Are you sure?"


"Deleted. You have sixty seconds to undo the deletion before it becomes permanent."

Kelric knew erasing parts of an EI's memory was ill-advised. It always lost associated data as well. Such deletions could have unexpected results. But surely erasing one small fact wouldn't cause trouble. Still . . . perhaps he should reconsider.

"If I don't cancel this Closure," Dirac added, "you are going to be destitute in one-hundred and eleven days."

A voice called from another room. "Kellie?"

"For flaming sakes," Kelric muttered. "Dirac, end session." He got up and stalked out of his office.

A woman was standing in his living room. Roca. Gold hair cascaded down her body and curled around her face. She had the same metallic gold skin and eyes as Kelric, but it looked much better on her. In Roca's youth, men had written odes to her beauty and songs lauding her grace. Hell, so had women.

He scowled at her. "My name is Kelric, Mother."

"My apologies, honey. I forget sometimes."

Honey was almost as bad. He wondered when she would notice that her "baby" had grown into a hulking monster who commanded one of the most deadly war machines ever created.

"Don't glare at me so," she added, smiling.

"I thought you were going to Selei City for the Assembly."

Her good mood faded. "That's what I came to see you about." She walked to his console and stood facing it, her palm resting on the surface, though he didn't think she was looking at anything.

He went over to her. "What's wrong?"

Roca wouldn't meet his gaze. "The Progressive Party wants to abolish the votes held by Assembly delegates with hereditary seats."

That didn't sound new. The Progressives considered it an abomination that the Ruby Dynasty and noble Houses held seats even though no one had elected them. As Pharaoh and Imperator, Dehya and Kelric were among the Assembly's most influential members. Roca had won election like any other delegate and become Foreign Affairs Councilor of the Inner Circle. With her hereditary votes added to that, she was also a great force. Kelric's siblings all held seats, but their blocs were smaller. The noble Houses each had two seats, mostly titular, with few votes.

Kelric smiled wryly. "One of these days, the Progressives will call for eradication of the Assembly on the grounds that EIs instead of people should run the government. The Royalists will agree we should abolish the Assembly, but only so Dehya becomes our sole ruler. The Traditionalists will insist a woman command the military and stick me in seclusion. The Technologists will blow up the Assembly with hot-air bombs. Meanwhile, the Moderates will urge everyone to please get along."

Roca laughed, her stiff posture easing. "Probably." She leaned against the console with her arms folded. "The problem is, I think the Progressives can make headway this time."

He didn't see how. "Every time they introduce one of those brain-rattled amendments, the Royalists vote them down. Usually the Traditionalists do, too. Your Moderates don't care, and they're the biggest party. Given that Dehya and I are both Technologists, I doubt they would vote to weaken our influence."

She stared across the room. "It seems the deaths in our family offer them a political opportunity."

Kelric felt as if someone had punched him in the stomach. He hated that he had gained his title through the deaths of his siblings. "It may offend them that I inherited Soz's votes when she died, and that she inherited them from Kurj, but they can't deny the law. The Imperator holds a primary Assembly seat." True, the military answered to the Assembly. But the loyalty of ISC to the Imperator was legendary. and he doubted the Assembly wanted to push the issue of who the military would obey. The last time they had faced that question, ISC had thrown its might behind the Ruby Dynasty and put Dehya back on the throne. In the end, she chose to split her rule with the Assembly because she genuinely believed it was best for the Imperialate. But few people doubted that, if put to the test, ISC would follow the Imperator.

"They won't touch your votes," Roca said. "They aren't stupid." Her voice quieted. "It's your father's bloc. No one objected to my inheriting it after he died because they knew how it would look. But it's been ten years." She sounded tired. "Before he became Web Key, we had only two Keys, the positions you and Dehya now hold. Those two Keys powered the Kyle Web. It was a fluke that your father's mind differed enough from theirs to add a third mind without killing them. Many people don't believe we can duplicate that achievement. They say those votes should cease to exist unless we find another Web Key."

Kelric swore under his breath. The Progressives had grounds for their objection. He had expected them to raise it years ago, and when they hadn't, he had grown complacent. They had bided their time until they could no longer be accused of traumatizing the widow or her grieving family. They had even waited a year after Jeejon's death, though Kelric had no direct connection with his mother's votes. Yes, they had been careful. He could see why Roca was worried. They might win.

He didn't want her to lose those votes. She was one of the Assembly's greatest moderating forces. Many citizens felt the Imperialate subjugated its people with militaristic occupations and harsh laws. Facing the relentless threat of the Traders, Kelric understood all too well the draconian measures instituted by previous Imperators. He had enough objectivity to admit that in defending the Imperialate, he was capable of acts many would consider oppressive. They needed temperate voices. Roca offered a counterbalance. The day he rejected that balance was the day he became a tyrant.

"You have a plan?" he asked.

"I'm going early to the session," she said. "See if I can sway votes. It would help if you attended in person. Spend time softening up delegates with me."

"I couldn't soften a pod fruit."

"You're damn effective when you want to be."

He glowered at her. "Doing what? I hate public speaking."

"I'm not asking you to speak in the Assembly." She smiled with that too-reasonable expression that always meant trouble. "I just plan to give some dinners. Small, elegant, elite. People consider it a coup to be invited. They will think it even more so if the Imperator attends. We wine them, dine them, and convince them to support us."

Kelric stared at her. "You want me to attend dinner parties with the imperial court?"

"Yes, actually."

"I would rather die."

Exasperation leaked into her voice. "It's not a form of torture, you know."

"It's not?"

"Do you want to win the vote or not?"

I'm going to regret this, he thought. "Fine," he growled. "I'll do it."

"Good." Then she thought, The dinners will be fun.

Gods forbid. He had never understood how she thrived in the universe of politics and the imperial court, but it gratified him that she did it so well. Someone in his family had to deal with the politicians.

After Roca left, he returned to his office and stood gazing at the dice on his desk. He thought of his family. In standard years, his son would be twenty-six now and his daughter sixteen. Ixpar was forty-two. She wasn't the mother of either child; she had only been fourteen when Kelric met her, and twice that age when she married him. He had never met his son, and he had known his daughter only a few months after her birth. The ache of that lack in his life had never stopped, even after all this time.

Kelric often wanted to go to them. Then he would remember the devastation he had wrought on Coba, how cities had roared in flames while windriders battled in the skies. He had brought death and ruin to their world.

He would die before he let that happen again.


The Gold Guards

Kelric met Admiral Barzun in the War Room.

Consoles filled the amphitheater, and robot arms carried operators through the air. Far above, a command chair hung under a holodome lit with stars, so anyone who looked up saw it silhouetted against the nebulae of space. When Kelric worked here, coordinating his far-flung armies, he sat in that technological throne. It linked him into the Kyle web, which stretched across human-occupied space. Any telop, or telepathic operator, could use the Kyle web, but only Kelric and Dehya could power that vast mesh.

Chad Barzun was waiting on a dais set off from the amphitheater. Crisp in his blue Fleet uniform, Chad was a man of average height, with a square chin, a beak of a nose, and hair the color of granite. As one of Kelric's joint commanders, he headed the Imperial Fleet. Kelric liked him because Barzun spoke his mind, with respect, but he said what needed saying even if he knew Kelric might not like it.

Barzun had commanded the fleet that put Dehya back on the throne. That shock had paled, though, compared to the next, when she had returned half her power to the Assembly. Kelric had stood at her side as she announced her decision. On his own, he would never have agreed to split the power. But he understood her reasons. The time for a hereditary dynasty as sole rulers of an interstellar empire had passed. They needed the Assembly. Unlike before Dehya's coup, however, the Ruby Dynasty now had equal footing with the Assembly.

Chad saluted Kelric, extending his arms at chest level and crossing his wrists, his fists clenched.

Kelric returned the salute. "At ease, Chad."

The admiral relaxed. "My greetings, sir. Are you leaving soon?"

"Later today." Kelric grimaced. "Unfortunately."

Chad smiled slightly. "I don't envy you this vacation."

Kelric didn't envy himself, either, having to spend time with the imperial court. "I'm taking a few days alone first."

"Very good, sir." Chad's voice quieted. "Let yourself rest. Gods know, you've earned it."

Kelric managed a dry smile. "I'll try," he lied.

They spent the next hour going over the Imperator's duties, which Barzun would oversee in Kelric's absence. If necessary, Chad could reach him through the Kyle web. Given that he believed Kelric was taking a long-overdue vacation, he would make contact only in an emergency.

Later, Kelric rode the magrail to a secluded valley of the Orbiter. He walked across the gilt-vine meadows, past Dehya's house. Holopanels on her roof reflected the sky and Sun Lamp several kilometers above. The spherical Orbiter was designed for beauty rather than efficiency; half its interior was just a sky. He could see the tiny figures of people walking by the sun. If they looked up, they would see the ground with its mountains and valleys curving above them like a ceiling of the world.

He hiked up the slope to his own house. Inside, his duffle was where he had left it, on the desk in his office. He took his dice pouch out of the desk and tied it to his belt. Then he went to a black lacquered stand in the corner. Resting his hand on its top, he slid his thumb over its design, the Imperialate insignia, a ruby triangle inscribed within an amber circle. The gold silhouette of an exploding sun burst past the confines of the triangle. The symbol of an empire. His empire. The Imperialate claimed it was civilized, but a heart of barbarism beat close beneath their cultured exterior.

His spinal node thought, Kelric.

He roused himself. Yes?

According to your schedule, you depart from docking bay six in twelve minutes.

Kelric pushed his hand across his close-cropped hair. With a deep breath, he tapped out a code on the sunburst insignia. A hum vibrated within the stand, and a drawer slid out.

His Coban wrist guards lay inside.

He picked up one of the guards. Crafted from gold, its ancient engravings showed a giant hawk soaring over mountains, the symbol of Karn, largest and oldest city-estate on Coba. He snapped open the guard. Its hinge worked well, even though he had left it untouched for a decade.

Kelric brushed his thumb over the massive gauntlet he wore on his right forearm, a marvel of conduits, alloys, and mesh engineering. He had its twin on his left arm. He had found the gauntlets in the Lock chamber, the place where Kyle space penetrated the real universe. The Lock was a singularity in spacetime. By stepping into it, he had joined the powerlink that created the Kyle web. In that moment, he had become a Key.

Thousands of years ago, after the fall of the Ruby Empire, his ancestors had lost the technology to create Locks. Although modern science had yet to rediscover the theories, they could use the ancient machines they found derelict in space or on planets, such as the Locks. Or these gauntlets. They provided him a mesh node, a comm, and a means to link with other systems. But they were more. They had intelligence. He felt certain they connected to Kyle space in ways beyond his ability, perhaps even his understanding. He had worn them for a decade, yet he still didn't know how they had survived for five thousand years or why they let him use them.

He clicked open a switch on his gauntlet—and it snapped closed. He pried at the switch, but this time it didn't move at all. Trying to open the entire wrist section didn't work, either. Odd. The gauntlet looked normal. Small lights glowed on it, silver threads gleamed, and the comm mesh glinted.

Come off, he thought. He didn't want to damage it; the gauntlets could never be replaced. Destroying them might even be murder.

If you won't open, he added, I can't put on my wrist guards.

Both gauntlets snapped open.

Kelric blinked, puzzled. Apparently they liked his wrist guards.

A socket gleamed in his left wrist. Normally the gauntlet jacked into the socket and linked to his internal biomech system. Handling his Coban guard with care, he clicked it around his wrist, lining up a hole in the gold with his wrist socket. Before he could do anything else, his gauntlet snapped around his arm and fitted into the guard as if they had always been joined. Filaments wisped out from the gauntlet, protecting the soft Coban gold.

"Huh." Kelric squinted at his arm. He took his second guard and snapped it onto his other wrist. That gauntlet immediately closed, repeating the same procedure as the first.

Bolt, Kelric thought.


Why did my gauntlets do that?

I don't know. Bolt projected a sense of apology.

Do you know why they wouldn't come off before?

Based on past incidents, I would say they believed it would endanger you to remove them.

What, by my standing in my perilous office, with its four thousand safeguards? That was an exaggeration, but not much. I might stub my toe.

It does seem far-fetched.

He touched the wrist guard. Its gold seemed warm compared to his silver and black gauntlet. Can you find out why they did that?

If you mean can I talk to them, the answer is no. But we exchange information all the time. I sometimes read patterns in their data. If I direct our exchange, with your wrist guards as the subject, I may glean some insights.

See what you can find out.

I will let you know.

He returned his attention to the nightstand. His armbands still lay in the drawer. They indicated a Calani's Level, the number of Estates where he had lived in a Calanya. Most Calani were First Levels. Attaining a higher Level was a matter of great negotiation, for what better way for one Manager to gain advantage over another than to obtain one of her Calani? His Quis held immense knowledge of her Estate, strategies, plans, everything.

Toward the end of his time on Coba, Kelric had lived at Varz Estate as a Fifth Level. His Quis had vaulted the already powerful Varz into world dominance, but his submerged fury had also gone into the dice. His life had been hell. Harsh and icy, the Varz Manager had been a sadistic nightmare. By that time, Ixpar Karn had ruled Coba, a young Minister full of fire. She had freed Kelric from Varz—and so provoked the first war Coba had seen in a thousand years.

I've an analysis of your gauntlets, Bolt thought.

Kelric put away his memories. Go ahead.

They consider whatever you plan to do dangerous enough that you need them for your protection. However, apparently they deem your wrist guards acceptable, even beneficial, to your needs or your emotions.

His emotions? Even he wasn't sure how he felt. He stared into the drawer. One of his armbands was missing. It had come off during his escape from Coba and probably lay buried somewhere in the ashes of Ixpar's Estate.

Kelric gathered the bands and packed them into his duffle. Then he left for the docking bay.

* * *

"Prepare for launch," Kelric said. The cabin of the ship gleamed, small and bright. An exoskeleton closed around his pilot's chair and jacked into the sockets in his spine.

As the engines hummed, Bolt thought, Your bodyguards aren't here.

Kelric didn't answer.

Mace, the ship's EI, spoke. "Bay doors opening."

A hiss came from around Kelric as buffers inflated to protect sensitive equipment in the cabin. The forward screens swirled with gold and black lines, then cleared to reveal the scene outside. Two gigantic doors were opening, their toothed edges dwarfing his vessel.

Bolt's thought came urgently. You must not leave without security.

Kelric laid his hand on the Jumbler at his hip. I have it.

One gun is not enough to guard the Imperator.

The ship is armed. And I used to be a weapons officer.

Even so. You should have —

Bolt, enough.

With a great clang, the docking clamps released Kelric's ship. He maneuvered out of the bay, leaving the Orbiter along its rotation axis. Communication between Mace and the dock personnel murmured in his ear comm. To them, the launch was routine. No one knew he was alone. He had told Najo, Axer, and Strava he was taking his other bodyguards, and he told the others he would be with Najo, Axer, and Strava.

As his ship moved through the Orbiter's perimeter defenses, Kelric spoke into his comm. "Docking station four, I'm switching off your network and onto the Kyle-Star."

"Understood," the duty officerreplied. "Gods' speed, sir."

"My thanks." Kelric cut his link to the Orbiter, but contrary to his claim, he made no attempt to reach Kyle-star, the interstellar mesh of communications designed to guide starships.

Bolt, he thought. Download my travel coordinates to the ship.

I don't think you should do this alone.

I've made my decision.

I'm concerned for your safety.

I appreciate that. Now send the damn coordinates.

You are sure you want to do this?

Yes! I'm also sure I don't want to argue with a node in my head.

Bolt paused, almost no time for human thought, but a long silence to an EI. Then he thought, Coordinates sent.

"Coordinates loaded," Mace said.

"Good." Kelric took a deep breath. "Take me to Coba."



Kelric played dice.

His ship was traveling in inversion, which meant its speed was a complex number, with an imaginary as well as a real part. It eliminated the singularity at light-speed in the relativistic equations. He could never go at light-speed, so he went "around" it much as a hiker might leave a path to walk around an infinitely tall tree. Once past the "tree," he could attain immense speeds, many times that of light. During the trip, though, his ship needed only minimal oversight. He had little to do. So he played Quis solitaire.

He swung a panel in front of himself and built structures on it about the Trader emperor, Jaibriol the Third. Jaibriol had only been seventeen when he came into power ten years ago, but he had compensated for his deadly lack of experience by marrying his most powerful Cabinet Minister, Tarquine Iquar. Kelric knew Tarquine. Oh yes, he knew her, far too well. While he had been serving aboard the merchant ship Corona, the Traders had captured it and sold him into slavery. Tarquine had bought him. If he hadn't escaped, he would still be her pleasure slave.

Uncomfortable with that memory, he shifted his focus to politics. His structures evolved strangely. They implied Jaibriol genuinely wanted peace. He found it hard to credit, yet here it was, in his Quis.

The talks had foundered in recent years. Kelric hoped Roca might sway the Assembly away from its current intransigence and back to treaty negotiations. He represented ISC at those talks, a military counterbalance to Roca. They made an effective team, she the diplomat, he the threat. But for it to work, they had to get to the peace table. If they and the Traders didn't hammer out a treaty, their empires could pound away at each other until nothing remained.

Patterns of the upcoming Assembly session filtered into his Quis. The structures predicted an unwanted result: his mother would lose the vote. He varied parameters, searching for models that predicted a win, and found a few. They relied on her ability to sway councilors outside of the session, with a greater chance of success if he helped her. Which meant he had to attend her infernal dinner parties. That put him in a bad mood, and he quit playing dice.

Sitting back, he gazed at the holoscreen in front of him, which showed the stars inverted from their positions at sublight speeds. He could replace the map with a display of dice and play Quis with Mace. It seemed pointless, though. He had taught the EI, and it played just like him, but without creativity. For ten years, he had done almost nothing but Quis solitaire. He was starved for real Quis. He had wanted to teach Dehya, had even given her a set of dice, but then he changed his mind. She was too smart. If she mastered Quis, she would unravel his secrets from the way he played. He couldn't trust anyone with that knowledge.

On Coba, he had played Quis with many Calani, saturating their culture-spanning game with his military influence until the war erupted. Ixpar claimed that capacity for violence had always been within her people, that in the Old Age, queens had warred with one another until they nearly destroyed civilization. Finally, in desperation, they subsumed their aggression into the Quis. He believed her, but he also saw what they had achieved, a millennium of peace, one that ended when he came to their world.

Kelric would never forget the windriders battling in the sky or Karn roaring in flames. In that chaos, he had stolen a rider and escaped. By then, he had known all too well why the Cobans wanted the Restriction. If he, only one person, could have such a dramatic effect, what would happen if the Imperialate came in full force? He had sworn that day to protect his children, Ixpar, and Coba.

Which was why he had to go back.

* * *

The preset message droned on the ship's comm. "Identify yourself immediately. This world is Restricted. Identify yourself immediately." And on and on.

The voice was an eerie reminder to Kelric of the day, ten years ago, when he had escaped to the starport. It was the only warning anyone received, either in space or on-planet. The port was fully automated and usually empty. Cobans had no access to anything there, and ISC didn't care who landed as long as they stayed in the port. Any Skolian who entered the Restricted zone, which consisted of the entire rest of the planet, essentially ceased to exist. He doubted anyone in ISC bothered to keep track, though. It mattered only if the Cobans held someone against his will, as with him. In that case, their actions would be considered an act of aggression, subject to military intervention.

Had ISC ever discovered what happened to him, they would have put the Cobans under martial law, prosecuted the Managers involved, absorbed Coba into the Imperialate, and never realized until too late, if ever, that they had destroyed a remarkable culture. He had the authority now to prevent the legal actions, but he couldn't stop his family from turning their relentless focus here if anyone discovered his interest—which they might if the port recorded his landing.

So he wouldn't go to the port.

"Mace," he said. "Get a map of the Coban Estates from the port. Hide your presence from the mesh system there."

"Accessing." Then Mace said, "The files are locked."

"Use my keys." His security would top any port safeguards.

"I have the map," Mace said.

"We need a city-estate called Viasa. It's in the Upper Teotec Mountains, the most northeast Estate." He was fortunate the Viasa Manager had bought Jeremiah's contract. Kelric had never been to Viasa, and his inviolable seclusion in the Calanya of other Estates meant none of Viasa's citizens had ever seen him.

"I've identified a city that fits your description," Mace said. "But it's called Tehnsa."

"Oh. That's right." He had forgotten. "Viasa is slightly below Tehnsa, near Greyrock Falls and the Viasa-Tehnsa Dam."

"I have coordinates," Mace said.

A holomap formed above a panel to Kelric's left, a dramatic image of the towering Upper Teotecs. The winds in those mountains were brutal. His ship was a Dalstern scout, designed for flight in planetary terrains as well as space, but it would still need guidance. At least Coba had aircraft beacons. Although their culture had backslid during their millennia of isolation, they had redeveloped some technology even before ISC discovered them. Their windriders were small but respectable aircraft.

"The dam has a beacon that can guide us," Kelric said.

"I can't find it," Mace said. "And this map is wrong. We're passing over what appears to be Tehnsa, but the map places it southwest of here."

Kelric frowned. His holomap was updating continuously, but Mace could only calculate changes as fast as the Dalstern's sensors could provide data about the mountains.

"How are you handling the winds?" Kelric asked.

"So far, fine. They're increasing, though, as we go lower in the atmosphere." After a pause, Mace added, "This port map is appalling. It hardly matches the one I'm making at all."

"Can you find the beacon?"

"So far, no."

"Keep looking."

"I'm getting a signal!"

Relief washed over Kelric. "From the dam?"

"No. It's a mesh system."

What the blazes? "Cobans don't have mesh systems."

"It's from Viasa," Mace said. "Not a guidance beacon. It's a general comm channel."

Kelric toggled long range comm and spoke in Skolian Flag, a language used by his people to bridge their many tongues. He didn't want to reveal he knew Teotecan, the Coban language, unless it was necessary.

"Viasa, I'm reading your signal," he said.

No response.

"Mace, can you increase my range?" Kelric asked.


"Viasa, I'm reading your signal," Kelric said. "Can you read me? I repeat, I'm reading your signal. Please respond."

Still no answer. The scout was lower in the mountains now, and peaks loomed around them.

The comm suddenly crackled with a man's voice. But the words made no sense.

"What the blazes was that?" Kelric asked.

"He's speaking Flag," Mace said. "Very bad Flag. I believe he said, 'Know English you? Spanish? French?'" The EI paused. "Those are Earth languages."

Kelric sent a thought to his node. Do I speak any of those?

I have a Spanish mod, Bolt replied. I can provide rudimentary responses.

Go, Kelric thought.

Bolt gave him words, and Kelric spoke into the comm, struggling with pronunciation. The Skolian translation glowed on a forward screen.

"This is Dalstern GH3, scout class TI," he said. "Viasa, I need holomaps. These mountains are much trouble. The wind make problem also."

"Can you link your computers to our system here?" the man asked. "We will help guide you down."

"Computers?" Kelric said, more to himself than the man.

"I think he means me," Mace said. "I will make the link."

Kelric spoke into the comm. "We try." At least he thought he said we. The translation came up as I. He continued to navigate the mountains, relying on Mace to map the terrain and feed data to Bolt. He could hear winds screaming past the ship.

"I'm having trouble linking to Viasa's mesh," Mace said. "It's manufactured by Earth's North-Am conglomerate, which is only partially compatible with ours."

"Figures," Kelric muttered. He wondered if anyone existed who had escaped buying products from the Allieds. Coba, though? He hadn't expected that.

The man's voice came again. "Dalstern, can you send your data in an Allied protocol?"

"Which one?" Kelric asked.

Symbols appeared on his screen, sent from Viasa. He saw a problem immediately. A pattern formed in his mind, evolving like a Quis structure, and with it, a possible solution.

"Viasa, we are maybe close to what we need," Kelric said. "Can you send the equations that transform the coordinate system you use to the one we use?" The Viasa system wasn't set up to deal with starships; they had only windriders to worry about.

More silence. Kelric hoped his Spanish was intelligible. According to his translator, what he wanted to say and what was coming out weren't the same. It seemed close, though.

A peak suddenly reared up on his screens. With accelerated reflexes, Kelric jerked the scout into a vertical climb. G-forces slammed him into his seat. He veered east and dropped past another crag with a sickening lurch. The scout leveled out and shot through the mountains.

"Gods." He spoke into the comm. "Viasa, where is beacon to guide aircraft in these mountains?"

A woman answered in terrible Spanish. "Say again?"

"The warning beacon. Where is it?"

"Broken." Her accent didn't mask her suspicious tone. He didn't blame her. He had just revealed he knew more about Viasa than almost any offworlder alive.

The man spoke. "Dalstern, we have holomaps for you, but we still have a protocol mismatch. We're working on it. Please stand by."

"Understood." Kelric wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. "Mace, how is our speed?"

"Too fast. The deeper we go in these mountains, the more complex the terrain. I can't recalculate the map fast enough."

Kelric leaned over the comm. "Viasa, I need maps."

"I'm sending what I have," the man answered.

"Received!" Mace said.

A new holomap formed, centered on a magnificent waterfall that cascaded down a cliff. In the east, a pass showed in the mountains. Kelric changed course for that small notch.

"Viasa should be beyond the cliffs," Mace said. "I still don't have landing coordinates."

Kelric winced at the thought of setting down in a mountain hamlet without guidance, on a field that was probably too small. "Maybe we'll see it when we get through the pass."

The holomap suddenly fragmented. In the same instant, Mace said, "I've lost the Viasa data stream."

Damn! Kelric spoke urgently into the comm. "Viasa, we have problem."

"We too," the man said.

Sweat dripped down Kelric's neck. Mace was doing his best to reconstruct the holomap, but they needed more—

With no warning, a wall ofstone loomed on his screens. Kelric had no time for surprise; Bolt accelerated his reflexes, and he swerved east before his mind grasped what he was doing. Cliffs sheered up on his starboard side as his ship hurtled into the pass. Closer, too close! He careened away, but that brought him too close to the other side.

Suddenly they shot free of the cliffs. Ahead and below, lights glittered like sparkflies scattered across the mountains. The rest of the majestic range lay shrouded in darkness beneath the chill stars. Bittersweet memories flooded Kelric, and incredibly, a sense of homecoming. He had never seen Viasa, but he knew the way of life, culture, language, all of it. Until this moment, he had never let himself acknowledge how much he missed those years he spent submerged in Calanya Quis. He had given up everything for that privilege: his freedom, his heritage, his way of life, even his name. It had almost been worth the price.

"We need landing data," Mace said. "Or I'm going to crash into that city."

"They must have an airfield." Kelric spoke into the comm. "Viasa, I need set-down coordinates."

The man answered. "We're working on it!"

Kelric could guess the problem. They didn't know starship protocols or astronavigation. The Cobans learned fast, but no one could jump from elementary aerodynamics to ship navigation in ten minutes. They had Jeremiah, but he was an anthropologist. Although college students learned the rudiments of celestial mechanics, Jeremiah had no more reason to know astronavigation than the Cobans.

"I'm mapping a landing site," Mace said. "I'll try not to hit too many buildings."

Kelric spoke into the comm. "Viasa, I have no more time. I guess coordinates."

"Dalstern, I have it!" the man said. Holomaps of Viasa flared above Kelric's screens.

"Received," Kelric said. He was going to careen right over the origin of the signal. "Suggest you get out of there," he added, praying he didn't hit their command center.

A sparkle of lights rushed toward the scout, and towers pierced the starred sky. A dark area ahead had no buildings. With a jolt, Kelric realized they had sent him to the Calanya parks, probably the largest open area in Viasa, even bigger than the landing field.

The Dalstern was dropping fast, past domes and peaked roofs. A wall sheered up out of the dark. It grazed a wing of the ship, and a shudder went through the scout. Although the collision barely pushed the ship off course, it was enough to invite disaster. Gritting his teeth, Kelric wrestled with the Dalstern, struggling to avoid the estate buildings.

The scout slammed down into the park and plowed through the gardens with a scream of its hull on the underlying bedrock. Trees whipped past his screen as the Dalstern tore them out of the ground. A wall loomed ahead of them, and he recognized it immediately, though he had never seen this one before. A huge windbreak surrounded every Calanya in every Estate, and he was headed straight for Viasa's massive barrier.

With a shattering crash, the scout rammed through the wall. Kelric groaned as the impact threw him against his exoskeleton. The ship came to a stop balanced on a cliff that sheered down beyond the windbreak. His lamps revealed a spectacular view; the Teotec Mountains rolled out in fold after magnificent fold of land, a primal landscape of dark mists and snow-fir trees.

The Dalstern began to tip over the edge.

Swearing loudly, Kelric tore off the exoskeleton and jumped to his feet.

"We don't have much time," Mace said. "I can take off now, but if I tip too far, I'm going down that cliff."

"Coltman will come," Kelric said. Jeremiah was smart. If a way existed to reach the ship, he would find it. At least, Kelric hoped so. He cycled through the airlock and jumped to the ground, into the night. The notorious winds of the Teotecs blasted him. Two people were running across the parks toward him, a tall woman and a husky man.

He knew the man.

Kelric froze. His hope of managing this without anyone recognizing him had just vanished.

Pounding came from the other side of the ship. Kelric ran around the fuselage to find a youth banging on the hull as he shouted in Spanish, "You have to get out!"

Kelric reached him in three ground-devouring strides. He grabbed the youth's arm and swung him around. The fellow looked up at him with a startled gaze, like a wild hazelle caught in a hunter's trap.

"I come for man called Jeremiah Coltman," Kelric said in halting Spanish.

The youth inhaled sharply. "I'm Coltman."

Kelric took his chin and turned his face into the starlight. His features matched the mesh Images. He lifted one of the man's arms and easily read the Teotecan glyphs on the armband: Jeremiah Coltman Viasa.

Relief washed over Kelric. "So. You are. We must hurry."

The Dalstern creaked as it tipped further. Alarmed, Kelric took off, pulling Jeremiah with him as he ran for the airlock.

A woman's voice called in Teotecan. "Jeremiah, wait!"

Kelric spun around. The woman and man had stopped a short distance away. The woman's attention was on Jeremiah, but the man stared at Kelric as if he were a specter from the graveyard.

Kelric's hand fell to his gun—and Jeremiah caught his arm. The youth had courage to touch a man with a Jumbler. He had to know it meant Kelric was a Jagernaut, one of ISC's cybernetic warriors. Had Kelric had less control of his augmented reflexes, Jeremiah's impulsive action could have just ended his young life.

"Please," Jeremiah said in Spanish. "Don't shoot them."

Kelric lowered his arm as the woman came closer. She was tall and elegant, with a regal beauty. A thick braid dusted with gray fell over her shoulder to her waist. The man was about forty, and he wore three Calanya bands on each arm. Third Level. He had been a Second Level when Kelric knew him.

"Don't go, Jeremiah," the woman said.

The youth's voice caught. "I have to."

"Viasa has come to care—" She took a deep breath. "I have come to care. For you."

"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm truly sorry. But I can't be what I'm not." His gaze shifted to the Third Level, then back to the woman. "And I could never share you. It would kill me." He sounded as if he were breaking inside. "Oh God, Khal, don't let pride keep you apart from the man you really love. Whatever you and Kev said to each other all those years ago . . . let it mend."

"Jeremiah." Moisture gleamed on her face in the starlight.

The ship scraped and shifted position. Kelric spoke to Jeremiah in Spanish. "We have to go."

The youth nodded, still intent on the woman.

"Good-bye, beautiful scholar," she said. Her voice caught on the words.

Jeremiah wiped a tear off his face. "Good-bye."

As the youth climbed into the ship, Kelric stared at the Coban man. The Third Level met his look with stunned eyes, but his gaze never wavered.

Kelric spoke to him in Teotecan. "Don't tell anyone. You know why."

The man inclined his head in agreement, silent as he kept his Calanya Oath.

Then Kelric boarded the scout.


Scholars' Dice


Jeremiah sat in the co-pilot's seat while Kelric piloted the Dalstern. The youth said nothing, but he didn't barrier his emotions well. His pain scraped Kelric's mind. Kelric pretended to be absorbed in his controls, giving the fellow as much privacy as they could manage in the cramped cabin.

An image of Jeremiah showed in a corner of Kelric's forward screen. The fellow hardly looked more than a boy. He wasn't tall, and his lean physique lacked the heavy musculature valued in Earth's culture. His rich brown hair gleamed and was longer than most Allied men wore it. He had a wholesome, farm boy quality, and also a shyness Kelric associated with scholars. Those traits might not have made him a male sex symbol on Earth, but Coba's women had probably adored him. Quiet, brilliant, scholarly, fit but slender, neither too large nor too strong: he matched their most popular ideal of masculinity. Kelric had unfortunately fit another ideal, albeit one far less common, the towering, aggressive male they wanted to tame.

It didn't surprise him that Jeremiah's armbands differed from those worn by most Calani. Kelric recognized them because his were the same. Jeremiah was Akasi, the Manager's husband. Making him a Calani without his consent was coercion, which meant the union could be annulled if Jeremiah wanted. Whatever the youth decided, Kelric suspected it wouldn't be easy for him.

Jeremiah sat with his eyes downcast, and Kelric busied himself with checks that didn't need doing. They were high enough now that the winds and abysmal port map didn't endanger the ship.

Eventually, when Jeremiah began to look around, Kelric spoke in halting Spanish. "Are you all right?"

The youth answered in the same voice Kelric had heard over the Viasa comm. "Yes. Thank you for your trouble."

"It is not so much trouble."

"You could have been killed."

Kelric suspected the biggest risk had been to the Calanya park. He would find a discreet means to recompense Manager Viasa for repairs.

"I have seen worse," Kelric said. "I expect to have the beacon, though. It help that you know the transform." Without Jeremiah's quick thinking, he would have had to land blind. The Dalstern would have survived, but not whatever part of Viasa it hit.

Mortification came from the boy's mind. He apparently had no idea how to guard his moods. "I was guessing. Playing dice with your life."

Kelric wondered if the young man realized what he had accomplished. "Such a problem take more than guesses."

"I was lucky."

Kelric smiled slightly. "You are not what I expect."

Jeremiah watched him with large brown eyes that had probably turned the women of Coba into putty. "I'm not?"

"The genius who make history when he win this famous prize at twenty-four?" With apology, Kelric added, "I expect you to have a large opinion of yourself. But it seems not that way."

"I didn't deserve the Goldstone." Jeremiah hesitated. "Besides, that's hardly reason for your military to rescue me."

"They know nothing about this." Kelric wasn't certain how much to tell him. "I take you to a civilian port. From there, we find you passage to Earth."

Jeremiah was watching him with puzzlement. "At Viasa you spoke in Teotecan. You even knew how to read my name from the Calanya bands. How?"

Kelric thought of Ixpar, his wife, at least for one hundred and nine more days. He answered in Teotecan. "It doesn't seem to bother you to speak."

Jeremiah seemed startled, but he switched easily into the Coban language. "Well, no. Should it?"

Kelric spoke quietly. "It was years before I could carry on a normal conversation with an Outsider." He used an emphasis on "Outsider" that only another Coban would recognize. Calani were Inside. The rest of the universe was Outside.

Jeremiah froze. Then he looked at Kelric's gauntlets—including the wrist guards—and Kelric felt the youth's jolt of recognition as if it were mental electricity.

"You were a Calani?" Jeremiah asked.

Kelric took a gold armband out of his pocket and handed it to him. "I thought this might answer your questions."

Jeremiah turned the ring over in his hands, and his shock filled the cabin. "You're him." He raised his gaze to Kelric. "You're Sevtar. The one they went to war over."

Sevtar. Kelric hadn't heard the name in a decade. Sevtar was the dawn god of Coban mythology, a giant with gold skin created from sunlight. He strode across the sky, pushing back the night so the goddess Savina could sail out on her giant hawk pulling the sun.

"Actually, my name is Kelric," he said. "They called me Sevtar."

"But you're dead."

Kelric smiled wryly. "I guess no one told me."

"They think you burned to death."

"I escaped during the battle."

"Why let them think you died? Did you hate Coba so much?"

Kelric felt as if a lump lodged in his throat. It was a moment before he could answer. "At times. But it became a home I valued. Eventually one I loved." He extended his hand, and Jeremiah gave him back the armband. Kelric ran his finger over the gold. His memories were too personal to share. He put the ring back into his pocket.

"Some of my Oaths were like yours," Kelric said. "Forced. But I gave the Oath freely to Ixpar Karn. When I swore my loyalty, I meant it." He regarded Jeremiah steadily. "I will protect Ixpar, her people, and her world for as long as it is within my power to do so."

Sweat beaded on Jeremiah's forehead. "Why come for me?"

"It was obvious no one else was going to." Dryly Kelric added, "Your people and mine have been playing this dance of politics for years. You got chewed up in it." He touched his wrist guard. "I spent eighteen years as a Calani. Everything in me went into the Quis. I was a Jagernaut. A fighter pilot. It so affected the dice that the Cobans went to war. I had no intention of leaving you in the Calanya, another cultural time bomb ready to go off."

Jeremiah didn't seem surprised. "You knew Kevtar."

Kelric thought of the man with the Viasa Manager. "He lived at Varz when I was there. Kevtar Jev Ahkah Varz. He called himself Jev back then, because people mixed up our names." As a Third Level, Kevtar would have an additional name, now. Viasa.

"Why did you tell him not to say anything?"

Kelric wondered if he could ever fully answer that question, even for himself. "I don't want my family seeking vengeance against Coba for what happened to me. They think I was a POW all those years. I intend for it to stay that way."

Jeremiah's posture tensed. "Who is your family?"

Kelric suspected Jeremiah would recognize the Skolia name. It was, after all, also the name of an empire. For most of his life, Kelric had used his father's second name because so few people could identify it.

"Valdoria," Kelric said.

A surge of surprise from Jeremiah; he knew the Valdorias were an important family. But nothing more.

"Maybe someday I can return," Kelric said. "But not now. I don't want Ixpar dragged into Skolian politics unless I'm secure enough in my own position to make sure neither she nor Coba comes to harm." Wryly he added, "And believe me, if Ixpar knew I was alive, she would become involved."

"Coban women are—" Jeremiah reddened. "Well, they certainly aren't tentative."

Indeed. It was an apt description of Coba's passionate warrior queens. "No, they aren't." He couldn't bring himself to ask more about Ixpar; he didn't want to hear if she had remarried.

"I thought I would never see my home again," Jeremiah said.

"Your rescue has a price." Kelric thought of his children, those miracles he had never revealed to anyone outside Coba's protected sphere. "If you renege, you'll face the anger of my family. And myself."

Jeremiah regarded him steadily. "I'll never reveal you were on Coba."

"Good." No matter who might claim it was impossible over such distances, Kelric could sense his children through Kyle space like a distant song. They were content. And safe.

"But how do I explain my escape?" Jeremiah asked.

"It's remarkable," Kelric said. "You managed to fly a rider to the port on your own." He motioned at the controls. "I've entered the necessary records and had the port send a message to Manager Viasa, supposedly from you."

"So she will tell the same story?"


Jeremiah spoke softly. "I'll miss her."

Kelric thought of Ixpar. "Coban women do have that effect." He squinted at Jeremiah. "Gods only know why. They are surely exasperating."

Jeremiah laughed softly. "Yes."

Kelric hesitated. "There is a favor I would ask of you."

"A favor?"

"I should like to play Calanya Quis again."

The youth sat up straighter, as if Kelric had offered him a gift instead of dice with someone who hadn't done the game properly for ten years. "I would like that."

Kelric pulled a table-panel between their seats as Jeremiah untied his pouch from his belt. The youth rolled out a jeweled set similar to Kelric's, though with fewer dice. Soon they were deep in a session, their structures glittering. Kelric saw right away why Manager Viasa had wanted the youth's contract even though Jeremiah had never formally trained for a Calanya. His Quis had clarity and purity. He made creative moves. Kelric had no problem anticipating them; for all Jeremiah's talent, he had a long way to go before he mastered his gifts. Kelric could have turned his game around, upside down, and inside out. But he didn't. He didn't want to discourage the youth.

With subtle pressure from Kelric's Quis, Jeremiah built patterns of his first years on Coba. During the day he worked in Dahl, a city lower in the mountains, and at night he wrote his doctoral thesis. He considered it an idyllic life. He never had a clue Manager Viasa noticed him during her visits to Dahl. Except, of course, when it was too late.

After a while, Kelric realized Jeremiah was trying to draw him out, too. So he let his life evolve into the dice. Twenty-eight years ago, his fighter had crashed in the Teotecs. The previous Dahl manager rescued him. Ixpar had been visiting Dahl then, a fiery-haired child of fourteen. Kelric later learned it was Ixpar who had argued that they save his life, though it would violate the Restriction.

However, they never intended to let him go. He had tried to escape, but his internal biomech was injured, and it had damaged his brain. He lost control of his neurological links while fighting his guards and killed one of them even as he tried to stop it from happening. He had crippled his own mind to save the others.

The Cobans were terrified that if he did escape, ISC would exact retribution against their world that would make the guard's death look like nothing. They were right. They should have executed him. Instead they sent him to the prison at Haka Estate. What swayed the Minister to let him live? The arguments of her fourteen-year-old successor. Ixpar.

"Good Lord," Jeremiah murmured. "I never learned any of this in Dahl."

Kelric lifted his head. "I doubt they wanted it in your doctoral thesis."

The youth regarded him with a look Kelric had seen too often here, an awed gaze that embarrassed him. "The way you play Quis is extraordinary. And you were holding back. A lot."

Kelric shifted in his seat. "It's nothing."

Jeremiah made an incredulous noise. "That's like saying a supernova is nothing compared to a candle."

His face gentled. "Your Quis is far more than a candle."

"Do you miss Calanya Quis?"

"Every day of my life."

"Perhaps you and I—?"

Kelric wondered what Jeremiah would do when he realized he had just asked the Imperator to play dice with him. No matter. It was a good suggestion. But unrealistic.

"Perhaps," Kelric said, though he knew it wouldn't happen.

"You know," Jeremiah said thoughtfully. "It could work in reverse."

Reverse? "What?" Kelric asked.

"Quis. We worry about Outside influence on Coba, but think how Coba might affect the rest of us." He gathered his dice and poured them into his pouch. "They're so peaceful here. Imagine if they let their best dice players loose on all those barbaric Imperialate warmongers." He froze, his hand full of jewels. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said—I didn't mean to offend."

"You didn't," Kelric said. In theory, he preferred peace to hostilities, too. In reality, he fully intended to build up ISC; they needed more defenses against the Traders, not less. But he wasn't blind. Jeremiah had reason for his views. Only a thin film covered the Imperialate's conquering soul. That film gleamed, bright and modern, but it could rip all too easily and uncover the darkness under their civilized exteriors.

Could Quis affect that darkness?


A Court of Rubies

The world Metropoli boasted the largest starport in settled space. The place was a city, teeming with people and vehicles. Kelric's scout ship went unnoticed in all the tumult, especially with his stratospheric clearances, which invoked veils of security most people had no idea existed.

He used a nano-paste to dull the metallic sheen of his skin and hair, and he donned clothes that made him look overweight. Jeremiah watched with puzzlement, but he didn't push the matter. He would figure out the truth soon enough. Kelric avoided public appearances and news broadcasts when he could, but his likeness was out there on the meshes. If Jeremiah searched on "Kelric Valdoria" and worked hard enough, he would identify his rescuer.

They walked to the gate where Jeremiah would board a transport to Earth. The youth was wearing a blue pullover and "jeans" interwoven with mesh threads. He had purchased them at a store that sold Allied imports. Several women gave him appreciative glances, but no one otherwise paid attention to them. Kelric hid in plain sight.

At the gate, Jeremiah offered his hand. "Thank you for everything."

When Kelric hesitated, Bolt thought, Remember? Put your hand in his and move it up and down.

Oh. That's right. He clasped Jeremiah's hand and shook until Jeremiah winced. Embarrassed, Kelric let go. He sometimes forgot to moderate his strength.

"You're sure you have enough funds?" he asked.

"You've been incredibly generous," Jeremiah said. "You must let me pay you back."

"It's nothing." Kelric didn't know the value of what he had given Jeremiah. He could multiply the amount by a million and it would still be insignificant to his estate. At least, that would be true for one hundred and nine days. After that, he would be officially dead and Ixpar would be very, very rich.

A female voice spoke from the air. "Mister Coltman, please board the shuttle. We are ready to leave."

Jeremiah swung his new smart-pack over his shoulder and smiled at Kelric. "Good-bye. And good luck."

Kelric inclined his head. "You also."

After Jeremiah boarded, Kelric stood at a window-wall and watched the shuttle take off. Good-bye, he thought, to Jeremiah and to Quis. But an idea was lurking in his mind. It had hidden in his subconscious, and now it crept into his thoughts like mist, blurring the outlines of his reality.

Had the time come to stop hiding Coba?

* * *

When Kelric visited the world Parthonia, he stayed at the Sunrise Palace. It was built of golden stone, with arched colonnades. Trees shaded its wings, silver-bell willows and ghost-elms with pale green streamer-leaves that draped from their branches. Three million people lived in Selei City far below, but this region of the mountains was off-limits, except to guests of the Ruby Dynasty. Tomorrow, the Assembly would convene down in the city; tonight, the elite of that legislative body had invaded the palace.

Kelric wore his dress uniform. After many studies, the ISC Protocol experts had designed it from black cloth that glimmered. The sheen seemed superfluous to Kelric, but it thrilled the analysts who charted how his appearance affected the public. The tunic had a dark gold stripe across his chest, and a gold stripe ran up the trousers, which Protocol claimed accented the length of his legs. It wasn't clear to him why anyone would give a buzz in a battleship about the length of his legs, but his opinion had no effect on their efforts. They polished his black knee-boots to a shine and fastened a black belt around his waist, all the time rhapsodizing about how the uniform complimented his physique. It was mortifying.

Kelric put off going downstairs as long as he could, but finally he descended the staircase that swept into the foyer of the Grand Opera Hall. Chandeliers dripped with sunburst crystals, and gold shimmered on the walls. Guests filled the hall, sparkling in their finery. Human servants rather than robots moved among them, carrying platters of drinks or pastries. So much for his mother's "small" dinner party.

As Kelric entered the Hall, he fortified his mental barriers until the emotions of the crowd receded to a bearable pressure. A man carrying a platter of goblets bowed to him. With a self-conscious nod, Kelric took a glass of a gold drink that bubbled. He would have preferred Dieshan pepper whiskey.

A woman in a long green dress was talking to several people nearby. She glanced idly at Kelric, then froze with her drink halfway to her lips, staring at him. It was odd. He lived here, after all. They were attending an affair hosted by the Ruby Dynasty; seeing a member of that dynasty shouldn't elicit that much surprise.

Everyone in her group was staring at him now. They bowed, all except the woman, who kept gaping. Then she jerked and bowed as well, her face flushed. Bewildered, Kelric nodded formally to them and kept going.

After he passed the group, he glanced down at himself. Nothing looked wrong, and he didn't think he had done anything strange. He eased down his defenses to search for clues, but the pressure against his mind increased, and his head throbbed. The moods of his guests swirled, too many to distinguish. It was a soup of emotions flavored by anticipation, curiosity, jealousy, avarice, boredom, and sensuality. Ill at ease, he reinforced his barriers until it all receded.

"I haven't seen you at one of these things in ages," a man drawled.

Kelric tensed and turned around. Admiral Ragnar Bloodmark stood there, idly holding a goblet of blood-red wine. Tall and lean, with sharp features, he had an aura of menace, as if he were ready to strike. His dark coloring evoked a lord of the Skolian noble Houses, but his grandfather had actually come from a place called Scandinavia on Earth. Ragnar was a Skolian citizen, however. His impressive military record and seniority should have made him the top choice to head the Imperial Fleet. Kelric had never trusted him, though, which was why he had promoted Chad Barzun instead. He doubted Ragnar would ever forgive him that decision.

Although Ragnar bowed, he somehow made the gesture mocking. Kelric had always wondered how he managed that, following imperial protocols to the letter, yet projecting disdain rather than respect. Kelric didn't care; he had never felt any need to have people bow to him.

"My greetings, Admiral." Kelric kept his voice neutral.

"And mine." Ragnar watched him closely. "So you will attend the Assembly in person this time."

"I imagine so." Kelric wondered if Ragnar was probing for clues about his vote. The admiral was a Technologist. Although Ragnar had supported Dehya's coup, Kelric had no illusions about his motives. He helped her for two reasons, the first being because he thought she could win. He hid his second, but as an empath Kelric knew. Ragnar coveted the title of Ruby Consort for the power that came with it. That Dehya already had a consort didn't deter him. Kelric had no proof Ragnar had contemplated assassinating her husband, nor would any tribunal accept empathic impressions as evidence; even if a way existed to verify them, they were too vague. But he had no intention of trusting the admiral.

"Your mother is lovely tonight," Ragnar was saying.

Distracted, Kelric followed his gaze. Roca was across the hall in a sleeveless blue gown, talking with several councilors, her gold hair piled elegantly on her head. Diamonds sparkled at her throat and dangled from her ears. One man was paying far too close attention to her, and Kelric didn't think his interest had anything to do with politics. He hated it when men noticed her that way. They were intruding on his father's memory.

"You're talkative," Ragnar said. A laconic smile curved his lips. "As always."

Deal with it, Kelric told himself. All Ragnar had done was compliment her. He motioned at the crowd. "They glitter tonight. But tomorrow in Assembly will be a different story."

"The ballot on your father's votes comes up, doesn't it?"

Kelric shrugged. "Votes on the hereditary seats come up every year." He eased down his barriers so he could do his own probe of the admiral. "And always fail."

"Perhaps not this time." Ragnar had worked with Ruby psions for decades and knew how to shield his mind. He also wasn't an empath, which meant Kelric couldn't receive impressions from him as well as from a psion. Although Kelric felt his ambivalence, he couldn't tell if it was because Ragnar wasn't certain how to vote or because he doubted the vote would succeed.

"It would be unfortunate for our party if the vote passed," Kelric said.

Ragnar gave an incredulous snort. "It's ridiculous that a technology party supports hereditary rule within a democracy."

Kelric cocked an eyebrow. "Ridiculous?" Ragnar wasn't the only one to make that assertion, not by far, but most didn't say it to Kelric's face. He saw their point perfectly well, but he had no intention of giving up his power.

"I apologize if I gave offense," Ragnar said.

Kelric doubted he felt the least bit apologetic. He sipped his drink. "It's only half a democracy."

"So it is." A sharp image came from Ragnar's mind, his memory of Dehya in the command chair of an ISC flag ship while a million vessels gathered in support of her coup. He had helped put her there despite his objections to her throne. His motives were purely self-interested; her ascendancy worked to his advantage if he backed her. However, he had no wish to support Roca's moderating voice in the Assembly. He wanted to conquer the Traders. Period.


Kelric's head ached from the flood of moods in the room. He raised his shields, and the onslaught faded enough that he could endure it again.

A woman spoke at his side, her voice rich with the Iotic accent of the nobility. "So what are you two plotting?"

Kelric turned with a jerk, even more edgy now. Naaj Majda had joined them. At six-foot-five, she commanded attention. Gold braid glinted on her dark green uniform, and her belt had the Majda insignia tooled into it, a hawk with wings spread. Iron-gray streaked her black hair; she was almost eighty, but she looked fifty. As General of the Pharaoh's Army, she served as one of his four joint commanders. She was also the Matriarch of the House of Majda and a ranking member of the Royalist Party. In the interim after the war, following the death of Kelric's sister but before Kelric had assumed command of ISC, Naaj had acted as Imperator.

She was also his sister-in-law.

Ragnar bowed to Naaj in perfect style and managed to make it even more sardonic than with Kelric. "My greetings, General." He raised his glass to her. "Oh, my apologies. You prefer the dynastic address, yes? Your Highness."

Naaj cocked an eyebrow at him. "Apology accepted." She knew perfectly well he was baiting her.

Kelric nodded to Naaj, and she nodded back, both of them excruciatingly formal. The House of Majda was the most powerful noble line, and thousands of years ago they had been royalty in their own right. Now their empire was financial, with holdings vast and lucrative. They had served the Pharaoh's Army since before the Ruby Empire and provided many of ISC's top officers.

Over forty years ago, Kelric had wed Naaj's sister—and lost her soon after to assassination. After the Radiance War, when Kelric had shown up to claim his title as Imperator, he had feared Naaj would refuse to relinquish either the title or the substantial Majda assets he had inherited from her sister. As Matriarch, however, she was honor bound to protect the widower of the former Matriarch. If not for that kin-bond, he wasn't so sure she wouldn't have tried to depose him.

She spoke with impeccable courtesy. "Your House does honor to your guests, Your Highness."

Well, that was safe. He gave a safe response. "We value the honor of your presence." He eased down his barriers, but Naaj was guarding her mind, and she blocked him.

"We were discussing my father's votes," Kelric said.

She inclined her head. "His memory lives with esteem."

He returned the gesture. That seemed the extent of their ability to relate tonight: nods and platitudes. At least she spoke with respect. Kelric's father had been a farmer, which had appalled the Royalist Party. Personally, Kelric would far rather spend his time on a farm than in the royal court, but he could hardly tell Naaj that, not if he wanted her votes.

"We venerate his noble memory," Ragnar told Naaj, his eyes glinting.

"So we do." Naaj's expression remained neutral despite his use of "noble" for a farmer. Kelric wondered why Ragnar bothered trying to bait her. No one could fluster Naaj.

As Naaj and Ragnar parried with barbs disguised as small talk, Kelric studied them. Maybe Ragnar provoked Naaj more than she let on. Her shields slipped, and Kelric sensed her mood with unexpected detail. She intended to back him tomorrow even if he counseled peace. She preferred action against the Traders, but she would follow his recommendations even if her House wished otherwise—because she respected his judgment.

That floored him. She sure as hell hadn't felt that way when he assumed command of ISC. As the head of a conservative House, she followed ancient customs from a time when men were property and kept in seclusion. Modern Skolia had an egalitarian culture, and Naaj was too savvy to let her personal views destroy her career. She knew she had to deal with him as Imperator. But she had obviously doubted his leadership ten years ago. He hadn't realized how much had changed since then.

And you? Kelric asked himself. Don't you see Coba the same way Naaj used to see you? He had never considered it in that light before.

"Good gods," a dusky voice said. "Kelric, what have you gotten into, caught by these two?" A woman with dark eyes and night-black hair was strolling up to them. Her glistening red gown could have been painted onto her prodigiously well-toned body. Ruby balls dangled from her ears, and her ruby necklace was probably worth more than a fully armed Starslammer warship.

Naaj gave the woman a dour look. "You're out of uniform, Primary Majda."

"So I am, Cousin." The woman, Vazar Majda, smiled lazily, with the ease of someone who was both off-duty and out of Naaj's line of command. A former fighter pilot, Vazar now served in the upper echelons of the Jagernaut-Force.

Ragnar bowed to Vazar, and this time he even looked as if he meant it. He raised his goblet. "You're stunning tonight, Primary Majda."

"Thank you, Admiral," Vazar said. With a wicked gleam in her eyes, she grasped Kelric's arm. "I'm stealing this golden apparition." Then she dragged him away.

Laughing, Kelric tried to extricate his arm. "Vaz, you'll give people ideas about us."

"Oh, they'll get them anyway." She drew him through an alcove and onto a balcony above the palace gardens. Out in the balmy night air, she closed the doors and sagged against the wall. "Gods, I thought I was going to suffocate in there. How can you stand these parties?"

He leaned against the wall and smirked. "That's a good question. The place is teeming with my sisters-in-law."

"Given all the brothers you have, that's no surprise." Her smile faded. "Had."

Kelric's mood dimmed. He had lost a sister and a brother in the Radiance War. Soz and Althor. Althor had been married to Vazar.

"Ragnar is right," he said, offering her a less painful subject. "You could be a lethal weapon in that dress."

Mischief returned to her eyes. "What about you, eh? Roca's greatest weapon, her gorgeous, powerful, bachelor son."

"ISC needs an entire protocol division to make me look this way." Grinning, he added, "We should set them loose on the Trader emperor. He'll surrender just to make them go away."

Vazar's laugh rumbled. "I imagine so." Then she said, "Roca wants you to sway votes."

He couldn't let that opening go by. "What votes?"

"That's why we're all here, isn't it? If the Assembly eliminates your father's votes, your mother loses power."

Well, that was blunt. It was one reason he liked Vazar; she didn't play at intrigue. He eased down his barriers. It wasn't as painful out here, where distance and several walls muted the onslaught from the Opera Hall. He probed at her mind.

"The drawbridge is up and the moat full of sea monsters," Vazar said. "You can't come in."

He squinted at her. "What?"

"You've a luminous, powerful mind, Kelric, but subtlety was never your strong point. Quit snooping."

He lifted his goblet to her. "I was knocking at the door."

She stood against the wall, facing him, curved and deadly in her glittering red dress. "If you want to know how I plan to vote, the answer is 'I don't know.'"

Damn. Her Assembly seat was hereditary. How could she not know her position on a ballot that jeopardized her own votes?

"I didn't realize a question existed," he said.

"I'm not Naaj. There's a reason I'm a Technologist instead of a Royalist." She shook her head. "If anyone should wield those votes, it's Roca. But should we concentrate so much power in unelected seats? Even without them, she's one of the most influential councilors in the Assembly."

Kelric's voice cooled. "That's right. She earned it through election."

"No one elected her to your father's votes."

"Better her than anyone else."

"Why should anyone have them?"

Instead of answering directly, Kelric said, "I won't deny I want vengeance against the Traders for all they've done to us."

"You should want it."

He spoke quietly. "My mother lost two sons and a daughter in the Radiance War. The Traders captured and tortured her husband, several of her children, and herself. She more than any of us should hate them. And believe me, she's capable of it." He knew Roca's darker side, the anger and bitterness she wrestled with, but when she walked into the Assembly Hall, she put it behind her. "Yet she counsels peace, now that we have a Trader emperor who claims he will negotiate with us."

"She's an invaluable voice of moderation," Vazar said. "But if we reaffirm that power for Roca, what happens when the next person wants it? And the next?" Her gaze hardened, reflecting the pilot who had become infamous in battle. "And maybe moderation is the wrong counsel."

He couldn't argue. Sometimes, when his anger or grief became too great, he wanted to send ISC to destroy the Traders, even knowing his forces and theirs were too evenly matched to ensure any outcome but misery.

"If we don't negotiate peace," he said, as much to himself as to Vazar, "this hostility will never end. Do you want a thousand years of war?"

Vazar pushed back her hair. "No." She stared down at the gardens. "Have you talked to Brant?"

He followed her gaze. In the garden below, Brant Tapperhaven was walking with a woman. As head of the J-Force, Brant was another of Kelric's joint commanders. Like most Jagernauts, he had a fierce streak of independence, and he also abhorred the idea of inherited votes. Kelric was glad he didn't hold an Assembly seat; Brant might have gone against him tomorrow.

"We've discussed it," Kelric said, and left it at that.

"Who is that girl with him?" Vaz asked.

"I don't know." He watched the couple stroll under colored lamps strung from silver-bell willows. The woman was lovely with her dark hair and sensual grace. She reminded Kelric of Rashiva, the Manager of Haka Estate on Coba. Haka ran the prison where they had sent Kelric after his escape attempt. He had spent one of the worst years of his life there. Then Rashiva made had him her Calani. He had never been certain what happened; he knew only that the power of his Quis at Haka had alarmed the Minister who ruled Coba. Haka Estate was an antagonist of the Ministry; Kelric's former Estate, Dahl, was the Ministry's strongest ally. Within a year, the Minister had pardoned him and he was back at Dahl.

He never saw Rashiva again. But seven months later, Rashiva had given birth to a son. Caught in the volatile politics of that time, she had claimed it was another man's child, born prematurely. Rumors spread about the remarkable color of the boy's violet eyes, a color never seen on Coba. None of them knew Kelric's father also had violet eyes.

Something was building within Kelric, something ten years in coming. He kept hearing Jeremiah's words: They're so peaceful here. Imagine if they let their top dice players loose on all those barbaric Imperialate warmongers.

Watching the woman in the garden, he spoke quietly. "She looks like my ex-wife." It was the first time he had mentioned anything of his life on Coba to any Skolian. It felt as if alarms should blare or bells toll.

"You think so?" Vaz peered at the woman. "Corey wasn't that beautiful." She flushed and quickly added, "I mean no offense to her memory."

"I know," Kelric said. "None taken."

She gave him an odd look. "Why would you call my cousin Corey your ex-wife? You two were married when she died."

Softly he said, "I wasn't talking about Corey."

"Who else could you mean?"

Ten years of caution, ten years of silence: he couldn't break it so easily.

"We should go back inside," he said.

Vaz was watching him intently. "All right."

For now she let it go. But he knew her silence wouldn't last.


The Gold Die


People overflowed the Amphitheater of Memories where the Assembly met. Tiers of seats rose for hundreds of levels; above them, balconies held yet more people. Delegates filled the amphitheater, and Images glowed at the VR benches where offworld members attended through the Kyle web. Controlled pandemonium reigned as thousands conferred, bargained, and argued, all the gathered powers of an empire struggling to accommodate the contradictions and conflicts of a government that was both dynastic rule and a democracy.

Kelric sat at the Imperator's bench with his aides, and also with Najo, Axer, and Strava standing on duty. They hadn't stopped scowling since they discovered he had taken his "vacation" with no guards.

A dais was rising in the amphitheater's center. The Councilor of Protocol sat at a console there, preparing to call the vote. Tikal, First Councilor of the Assembly, the elected leader of the Imperialate, stood at a podium, and Dehya was standing closer to Protocol. On principle, Kelric would have preferred Dehya attend through the web; that way, his people could protect her even better than the stratospheric level of security he already wrapped around her. But he knew why she came in person. Although she was one of the savviest people here, her waif-like face and small size made her look fragile. It inspired protective instincts in people and helped counterbalance his presence, which many people found alarmingly militaristic.

The session had started only an hour ago, and already the debate regarding his mother's voting bloc was done. Few speakers had commented. Those who did, including Naaj Majda, orated eloquently in Roca's favor. The lack of counterarguments didn't fool Kelric. No one wanted to speak openly against the Ruby Dynasty. Unfortunately, their reluctance only went so far; it wouldn't stop most of them from voting against her even in an open ballot. He could see Roca on his screens. She sat across the amphitheater, relaxed at her console with a composure that he doubted came easy today.

The number of votes held by a delegate depended on the size and status of the populations that elected them, or in the case of hereditary seats, on the power of the family. The Ruby Pharaoh and First Councilor held the largest blocs. The next largest went to Kelric, then the Councilors of the Inner Circle: Stars, Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Finance, Industry, Judiciary, Life, Planetary Development, Domestic Affairs, Nature, and Protocol.

Protocol spoke into her comm. "Calling the vote."

The words flashed on Kelric's screen. They also came over the audio system, but they were almost lost with all the noise. Protocol waited while people quieted. Then she said, "The measure is this: The voting bloc of the Web Key should cease to exist until another Web Key ascends to the Triad. A vote of Yea supports abolishing the bloc; a vote of Nay opposes the measure."

She called the roll then, starting with the lowest-ranked delegates, those with the fewest votes. Their names appeared on Kelric's screen, their Yea or Nay, and the number of votes they carried. The overall tally showed on a large holoscreen above the dais.

Bolt, Kelric thought. Project the outcome based on the current tally and your expectations for delegates who haven't yet voted.

Your mother will lose, Bolt answered.

Damn. At the moment, the tally favored Roca. Most noble Houses had already cast their ballots, though, and they supported her. Ragnar's name came up—and he voted against her. Kelric gritted his teeth as her edge shrank. The vote continued inexorably, and when it turned against her, murmurs rolled through the hall. Kelric heard a snap, and a sharp pain stabbed his palm. Startled, he looked down. He had gripped the console so hard, a switch had broken and jabbed his hand.

"Cardin Taymor," Protocol called.

Kelric glanced up, at a loss to recognize the name.

She's new, Bolt thought. From Metropoli. Given her record in their Assembly, she will undoubtedly go against Councilor Roca. He accessed Kelric's optic nerve and produced an image of Taymor. Kelric blinked; she was the woman who had done a double take when he walked into the Grand Opera Hall last night.

His screen flashed with Taymor's vote: Nay.

Hah! Kelric grinned. You calculated wrong.

Perhaps I had too little data. Bolt paused. Or maybe your protocol analysts know what they are doing better than you think. She did seem taken with you.

Dryly Kelric thought, Thanks for your confidence in my intellect.

Voices rumbled in the amphitheater; apparently Bolt wasn't the only one who had misjudged Taymor's intent. Coming from the most heavily populated world in the Imperialate, she wielded an impressive bloc. The tally swung back in favorof Roca.

Update, Bolt thought. I now project you will win.

Kelric exhaled. The broken switch fell out of his hand and clattered onto the console.

As the vote continued, the tally fluctuated, but remained in Roca's favor. Two of Kelric's brothers had attended: Eldrin, his oldest sibling and the Ruby Consort; and Denric, who had earned a doctorate in literature and now taught children on the world Sandstorm. Both voted with Roca, and she cast proxies for Kelric's other siblings, also in her favor.

Then Protocol said, "Vazar Majda."

Across the amphitheater, the Majda queens were sitting at their consoles, tall and aristocratic. Just their women held Assembly seats; even in this modern age, they followed ancient customs that allowed only their women to inherit power.

When Earth's people had finally discovered the Imperialate, they had scandalized the noble matriarchs of Skolia. Apparently on Earth, men had historically held more power than women. The matriarchs claimed this was why it took Earth's people so long to reach the stars. They asserted that if women had been in charge, Earth would have achieved that pinnacle of development thousands of years earlier. Their arguments conveniently ignored the fact that their ancestors had developed star travel because they had starships to study.

Earth's annoyed males had responded by pointing out that Earth had achieved a far greater degree of peace than the Imperialate, which surely had to do with the fact that bellicose, aggressive women had been in charge of the Imperialate rather than peaceful men. Naaj Majda hadn't understood why Kelric found this so funny. She even acknowledged the Earth men had a point. Kelric told her to go read Earth's military history.

By the time Earth and Skolia discovered each other, both had evolved toward equality, though men still tended to hold more power on Earth and women more among the Skolians. The Traders had always been egalitarian; they enslaved everyone equally, male and female alike.

The way the Majda queens secluded their princes reminded Kelric of a Calanya. He had lived in over half of Coba's cities, yet he knew almost nothing about them, for he had spent his entire time in seclusion. He had never done anything as simple as buy a sausage at market. They had imprisoned him in luxury as if he were a ruby die locked in a treasure box, withholding something far more precious than all the wealth they lavished on him—his freedom.

Protocol's words came over the audio system. "Vazar Majda, does your console have a problem?"

With a start, Kelric realized Vazar hadn't voted.

Her answer came over the audio. "No problem."

"Please place your vote," Protocol said.

Why isn't she responding? Kelric asked Bolt. He could see her arguing with Naaj.

I don't know, Bolt thought. However, my projection of your win assumes the Majdas will support you.

He didn't believe Vazar would go against them. But she had worried him last night.

"Vazar Majda, you must respond," Protocol said.

The buzz of conversation in the amphitheater died away. Such a wait was unprecedented. Then Kelric's console flashed—like a punch to the gut.


Gasps came from all over as the tally swung solidly against Roca. Naaj's face was thunderous. Protocol called her next, and her adamant Nay negated Vazar's effect. Then the Inner Circle voted—and doubled the tally against Roca. Roca went next and took a huge bite out of their gains.

"Kelric Valdoria," Protocol said.

He stabbed in his answer, and it flared on his screen. Nay. The tally careened toward a balance, almost evening the sides.

Two voters remained: the Ruby Pharaoh and First Councilor. Their blocs were almost identical, but Dehya had a few more votes—because she had staged the coup that deposed Tikal. Her decision to rule jointly with him had been contingent on those extra votes, and with them the ability to break a deadlock.

"First Councilor Tikal," Protocol said.

His answer appeared: Yea. The tally shifted firmly to his side, and the amphitheater went silent as if the Assembly were holding its collective breath.

"Dyhianna Selei," Protocol said.

Dehya's vote flashed: Nay.

The tally careened back toward Roca's side. When it finished, the result glowed in large red letters above the amphitheater.

By a mere six votes, Roca had lost.

* * *

Kelric brooded in the Corner Room, a hexagonal alcove removed from the amphitheater. Someone had shoved a divan into a corner, so he sat on it with his back against the wall and his legs outstretched. A line of blue and white glyphs bordered the wall at shoulder height, more artwork than words.

Leaning his head back, he closed his eyes. He was clenching his Quis pouch, and dice poked his hand through the cloth. He told himself that today's vote didn't matter. If anything, it strengthened his position as Imperator. But he feared it presaged an even more intransigent Assembly and a future of hostilities with the Traders, the Allieds, even his own people.

A creak broke the silence. As Kelric opened his eyes, the antique door across the room swung inward on old-style hinges designed for aesthetics rather than practicality. A slender man with curly blond hair stood looking at him. Beyond him, Kelric's bodyguards were talking to another bodyguard in black leathers. Kelric's visitor came in and closed the door.

"My greetings, Deni," Kelric said.

"It's good to see you," his brother said.

Kelric felt the same way. He saw Denric only a few times a year. When had that streak of grey appeared in his brother's hair? Denric had always seemed young, though he was a decade older than Kelric. Perhaps it was his boyish face or small size compared to his towering brothers. Or maybe it was his idealism, his belief he could bring about a more peaceful universe by schooling young people. Kelric suspected the universe would resist tranquility regardless of how well its inhabitants educated themselves, but that had never decreased his admiration for his brother. Denric had taken a teaching post that paid almost nothing in an impoverished community and dedicated his life and personal resources to its youth.

His brother settled into an upholstered chair and swung his feet up on the footstool. "Well, that wascertainly a rout."

"We only lost by six votes," Kelric said. "That hardly qualifies as a rout." Not that it made him feel any better.

Denric considered him for long enough to make Kelric uncomfortable. Then Denric said, "I suppose for you, it has advantages."

"You think I wanted that to happen?"

"It supports you." Denric's voice was atypically cool. "It will help you continue to build up the military beyond our needs and increase ISC control over our people."

Kelric couldn't believe he was hearing this from his own brother. "You ought to know me better than that."

"I thought I did. But sometimes it seems like I hardly know you at all. You've become so focused on ISC, people are comparing you to Kurj."

Kelric stared at him. People had called Kurj a dictator. Yes, Kelric physically resembled him. Even their names were similar. But he had little else in common with his half-brother.

"If I don't build up ISC," Kelric said, "the Traders will conquer us. Then we'll all be slaves."

Denric gave him an incredulous look. "So you need military threats against our own people?"

"Of course not."

"Which is why all our own worlds have such a strong ISC presence."

"It's to protect them." Kelric eased down his mental shields. We have to be ready. If the Traders attacked today, we would lose.

Denric's cultured thoughts came into his mind. I had heard nothing of our situation being that bad.

It is hardly something I want to broadcast.

Then why don't they attack us?

They probably don't know they can win. After a moment, Kelric added, Or maybe this emperor of theirs genuinely desires peace.

Maybe. Denric didn't hide his doubt.

Kelric's head throbbed from the contact. Releasing the link, he shielded his mind and exhaled as the ache in his temples receded. He didn't know how psions had survived without the ability to raise shields. The onslaught of emotions could drive a person insane.

The geneticist Rhon had developed the shielding techniques centuries ago. He also developed genetic modifications that would reroute the pain signals an empath received to areas of the brain that didn't process empathic input. He sought to ease their intense sensitivity to such signals.

That well-meant plan became one of the worst failures in history.

Rhon had inadvertently created the Aristos, a race of anti-empaths. When an Aristo detected pain from a psion, it activated pleasure centers of the Aristo's brain, producing ecstasy. Aristos were sadists. They craved psions with single-minded obsession and enslaved them with no remorse.

Kelric thought of his only face-to-face meeting with the Trader Emperor, Jaibriol III. He had felt certain Jaibriol was an empath, though Aristos supposedly lacked the "contaminating" genes that created a psion. The youth protected his mind well; only a Ruby psion would have guessed. But if his people ever suspected, his life would become hell. Maybe this emperor had reasons no one expected for wanting connections with Skolia.




The door opened again, framing Dehya in its archway. Yet more black-clad bodyguards had gathered outside, dwarfing her delicate form. They were the human components in the myriad of defenses that protected the dynasty, especially the Dyad.

"Well." Denric pulled himself out of his chair. "I'll leave you two to talk."

A smile touched Dehya's face. "My greetings, Deni."

He swept her a gallant bow. Court etiquette didn't require it with his own family, but he always treated Dehya that way. Straightening up, he winked at her. "Don't intimidate my little brother."

Her laugh was musical. "I'll try not to terrorize him."

After Denric left, closing the door, Kelric smiled at his aunt. "I'm quaking in my boots."

Dehya dropped into the chair, taking up much less of it than Denric had done. "Roca isn't happy."

That had to be an understatement of magnificent proportions. "She's still one of the most influential voices in the Assembly."

Dehya regarded him wearily. "It isn't only the vote. She believes Vazar betrayed us. She used words that—well, let's just say it was language my sister the diplomat rarely employs."

"I don't blame her." Yet for all his anger, Kelric knew Vazar too well to call her decision a betrayal. "Vaz follows her conscience, not anyone's political agenda."

The door slammed open and Roca stalked into the room. "She dishonored him." She closed the door with a thud. "She inherited Althor's votes and now she disrespects his memory."

"I doubt she thinks so," Dehya said.

"Why aren't you angry?" Roca demanded.

Dehya grimaced. "I'm worn out with being angry. It seems to be a constant state where the Assembly is concerned."

Roca scowled at Kelric.

"What?" Kelric asked.

"First Denric, then Dehya, now me. What is this, we must come to petition the mighty Imperator?"

"Why are you angry at me?" he asked.

"You spoke to Vaz last night."

"I speak to Vaz all the time."

"Did you encourage her to change the vote?"

"You think I plotted this with her?"

"Did you?"

"No." He barely controlled his surge of anger. "I can't believe you would even ask."

"Her vote benefits you."

"For flaming sakes," Kelric said. "If I had wanted to vote for the damn ballot, I would have."

"Having Vaz do it makes her the traitor," Roca said. Her mental tap came at his mind. Kelric?

He crossed his arms and strengthened his mental shields.

Kelric, come on. Her thought barely leaked through.

She wanted to talk? Fine. He lowered his barriers and let his anger blast out. You have no business accusing me.

Roca took a startled step back and her face paled. But her thought didn't waver. I know.

So why the bloody hell say it?

It was Dehya who answered. We think someone has compromised security.

You're testing it?

Roca winced at the force of his thought. Yes, she thought. Testing to see if rumors spread of strife within the Ruby Dynasty.

He didn't believe her. He was the one who oversaw security. If they trusted him, they would have told him. Why didn't you warn me? This time, though, he moderated the power of his thought.

We had to make it convincing, Roca thought.

She had a point; he was a terrible actor. But she was testing him, too, regardless of what she claimed. He gave her a dour look. Did you ask Denric to challenge me, too?

Surprise came from her mind. No. I didn't.

Although that troubled Kelric, he knew Denric had never been easy with the military. The problem isn't Vazar. The Assembly doesn't like our hereditary seats. If they could remove them all, they would.

Roca crossed her arms. I can't believe they still expect us to do the Promenade.

Kelric couldn't either, but he had always felt that way. Every seven years, the Assembly asked the Houses to walk in a ceremonial promenade. The public loved it, which was why the Assembly promoted the whole business, because it inspired the public to love them, too.

We can refuse, he thought.

I'd like to. Roca uncrossed her arms. But it would make us look bad. She resumed pacing. I need to talk to Councilor Tikal.

Dehya glanced at Kelric with a slight smile. I think we should let her loose on the Assembly to work her magic.

Maybe she'll convince them to take another vote. Aloud, in case someone actually was eavesdropping, he added, "If you believe I plotted with Vaz, you should, uh, leave." He almost winced at his lousy acting. A swirl of amusement came from Dehya.

"Very well," Roca said. "I will." With that, she swept out of the room. In the wake of her departure, the chamber seemed smaller.

Dehya sat back in her chair. "She won't stay angry."

Kelric just shrugged. He was still simmering.

"I spoke to Vaz before I came here," Dehya added.

He hadn't caught that from her mind. He always kept his shields partially up when he mind-spoke with her, though. She had more mental finesse than he would ever manage, and he didn't want her to learn too much from him.

"About the vote?" he asked.

"She didn't want to discuss it," Dehya said. "I think she's as upset with herself as we are."

Kelric scowled. "That didn't stop her from doing it."

She told me something peculiar, Dehya thought.

Wary, he let her see only the surface of his mind. Peculiar how?

Her answer had an odd stillness. That you had an ex-wife.

Kelric was suddenly aware of the dice pouch in his hand. He shored up his mental defenses, and Dehya's thought came to him as though it were muffled. I thought Trader empathic slaves were forbidden to marry.

They are.

Then how could you have had a wife?

He couldn't respond.

Kelric? Dehya asked.

His thought came like a shadow stretching out as the sun sunk to the horizon. I wasn't with the Traders all those eighteen years.

Neither her posture nor her face betrayed surprise, but it crackled in her mind, not from what he told her, but because he finally admitted what she had always suspected. He couldn't explain. The words wouldn't come. So he formed the image of a woman. It wasn't Rashiva Haka, his ex-wife. Instead, he showed her the woman he had married later.


She had brought sun into his life. She laughed often, and her yellow hair framed an angelic face. She stood only as tall as his chest, but that never stopped her from doing outrageous things to him: climbing the tower where he lived and hanging on a rope while she proclaimed her love; kidnapping him up to a ruined fortress; getting him drunk so she could compromise his honor in all sorts of intriguing ways. Somewhere in all that, their play had turned to love, and it had changed him forever.

Kelric couldn't bear the memory. He hid it deep in his mind.

"Saints almighty," Dehya murmured. "What happened to you?"

He just shook his head.

After a silence, she said, "Do you want to be alone?"

He nodded, staring at his dice pouch. He heard her leaving. He looked up just as she set her hand on the crystal doorknob.

"Do you remember," Kelric said, "when I asked you to make copies of my dice?"

She turned to him. "I still have them."

"Tonight, at home, will you join me for a game of Quis?"


He shook his pouch, rattling the dice. "This."

Her posture altered slightly, with a new tension. "I would like that."

He said no more. That had been enough. Maybe too much.

After Dehya left, Kelric poured his dice onto the divan. He picked up the gold ball. He almost never used it. For him, it symbolized one person. Savina. She had been an empath, a mild talent, but she carried every one of the genes. On a planet with primitive medical care, in a place with infant mortality rates higher than on almost any other settled world, Savina had brought an empath into the world, and incredibly, the baby girl had survived the agonizing birth.

Not so for Savina. She had died in Kelric's arms.

On that distant world, protected by the inimitable Hinterland Deployment, a child with gold eyes was growing to adulthood. She had been born of Kelric's greatest sorrow, but she was a treasure, hidden by the Restriction and by the power of one of the greatest military forces known to the human race.


Sunsky Bridge

Dehya sat at the round table with Kelric. He rolled out his dice, and she shook hers out of a box. While the rest of the Assembly slept, celebrated, or brooded, he and Dehya played Quis.

Words had never been his forte, so he showed her the rules instead. He placed a regular tetrahedron—a ruby pyramid—in the center of the table. Then he waited.

Dehya looked from the die to Kelric to the pyramid again. Then she took a gold pentahedron and set it next to his piece.

That surprised him. Did she know she had started a queen's spectrum? She had probably studied records of his solitaire games, trying to figure them out. Building a spectrum against an advanced player was difficult. An augmented queen's spectrum was almost impossible; to his knowledge, he was the only living person who had done it in Calanya Quis.

He set a yellow cube against her die. She placed a green heptahedron. Well, hell. She was making a spectrum. He played an emerald octahedron. "My game."

She looked up at him. "You can win Quis?"

He grinned. "Of course. You're lucky we aren't betting; you would owe me ten times whatever you had risked."

Dehya cocked an eyebrow. "Why should I believe you won?"

Despite her outward skepticism, he could tell she was enjoying herself. It was the advantage of being an empath; it helped him learn gestures, body language, and expressions until interpreting them became second nature. He could read Dehya even when she shielded her mind.

He tapped the line of dice. "These increase according to number of sides and colors of the spectrum. Five make a queen's spectrum. Three of the dice are mine and two are yours. I have advantage. So I win."

"I was helping you, eh? If you start the spectrum, you win no matter what."

"You can block my moves." He took his dice and slid hers across the table. Then he set an amethyst bar in the playing area. "Your move."

"Are we gambling?"

"If you would like."

She laughed softly. "Ah, well, you made up the rules, I don't know them, and you've been playing for decades. I don't think I want to bet." She set her amethyst bar on top of his.

Kelric stared at the bars until he felt her amusement fade to puzzlement. Finally he said, "I didn't make up the rules."

"Who did?" Her voice had a waiting quality.

He set a diamond sphere near the structure. Its flattened bottom kept it from rolling away. "Your move."

She waited a little longer, but when he didn't respond, she said, "Spectrums go by color, yes?"

"That's right."

"And white is all colors, in light."

"Yes." So she had already figured it out. She was going to be formidable at Quis. He wondered if she realized he had represented her with the diamond ball. As the highest ranked piece, it seemed appropriate. Dehya wasn't hard like a diamond, but its implied strength fit her. And the way it refracted light within itself, releasing a spectrum of vivid colors, fit her well.

She set a gold dodecahedron apart from the other dice. Interesting. Although a sphere was the highest-ranked shape, the dodecahedron came next. What did she mean? Possibly nothing. He could never tell with Dehya, though; her complex, evolving mind often startled him.

He set down an onyx ring, one of his symbols for himself. She responded by balancing a jeweled arch so it connected the diamond ball and gold dodecahedron.

Kelric tapped the structure she had built. "That's a sunsky bridge."

"What does it mean?"

"It suggests a cooperative venture."

She indicated the gold dodecahedron. "Roca." Then she touched the diamond ball. "You."

He regarded her curiously. "Why assign names to the dice?"

"I've watched you play. Your structures evolve. It's almost as if they have personalities."

It gratified him that she understood. "They tell stories. Or make the story. The dice shape events as much as portray them."

"I don't see how gambling can spur events." Wryly she added, "Except to lower my credit account."

Kelric waved his hand. "Gambling is for Outsiders. It isn't true Quis." He leaned forward. "Suppose everyone played. Everywhere. Throughout the Imperialate."

She was watching him closely. "And?"

"I put my stories into my Quis. I play dice with other people. My input goes into their Quis. They sit at Quis with others. The better designed my strategies, the more it affects their Quis, and the more they pass on my intentions."

"So your effect spreads."


"And if, say, Vaz Majda played Quis, you might affect her opinions."

Good! She saw. "But other people also input stories. Ragnar might build patterns of war. Councilor Tikal would focus on politics. Naaj would bring in heredity. Their input goes to the public, who all play Quis. Everyone affects the game, but most people don't play well enough to do much beyond accepting, refusing, or transmitting ideas."

Her voice took on a careful quality. "And when everyone is playing Quis, what do you call your world?"

He knew what she was really asking: where he had spent all those years? He gathered his dice and put them in his pouch. "Thank you for the game."

"Who won?"

"Both of us."

"So you and I, we don't gamble."

Calani and Managers never do. But he kept that thought shielded from her. "With you, I would rather work together."

She met his gaze. "So would I."

He stood and bowed. "We will play again."

Dehya rose to her feet. "I hope so." Her thoughts swirled with unasked questions, and he knew if he let down his barriers, they would flood his mind. But she didn't speak. Perhaps she knew he couldn't answer.

Not yet.


Plaza of Memories

Sunlight filled the city center. Skyscrapers pierced the lavender sky, which had never taken on the bluer hue intended by the world's terraformers. The mirrored buildings reflected clouds as if they were constructed from the sky itself. Kelric strolled in a plaza tiled with blue stone. Government officials walked in pairs and trios across the area, their jumpsuits glossy in the sunshine. Many glanced at Kelric, but they gave him and his heavily armed guards a wide berth.

The beautiful weather contrasted with his mood. He had no desire to attend the Assembly after yesterday's loss, but the sessions continued. At least he could escape during this break. Najo, Axer, and Strava walked with him.

"Nice day," Strava commented.

"It is." Kelric needed say no more. It was one reason he liked these guards. They were as taciturn as he.

He stopped at the plaza's fountain, a jumble of geometric shapes with water cascading over them. It looked like a big pile of wet Quis dice. What would happen if he introduced Quis into Skolian culture? It might be no more than a fad. But he knew it too well to believe that. Quis would fascinate his people: scholars would write papers on it, gaming dens would proliferate, schools would teach it, player conclaves would form. The game was too powerful to fade away.

Maybe it would spread to the Traders. The Coban queens had sublimated their aggression into Quis. He doubted it could affect the Traders as much, but even a small change might get the stalled treaty negotiations back on track.

A silver spark flashed in Kelric's side vision.

Combat mode toggled, Bolt thought.

What the hell? As Kelric spun around, Najo literally shoved him to the ground. Strava and Najo both threw themselves across Kelric as he hit the pavement. Axer stood over them with his feet planted wide, firing, his massive Jumbler clenched in both hands. The gun had to be big; it was a particle accelerator. It carried abitons, the anti-particle of the biton. Electrons consisted of many, many bitons. With a rest energy of 1.9 eV, they produced only orange light when they annihilated abitons—but that was all it took. It was bad enough in the atmosphere; when the beam hit solids, the instability of the mutilated electrons blew apart the material.

Axer swept the beam across the plaza, his speed enhanced, his reflexes powered by the microfusion reactor in his body. Strava and Najo were shooting as well, even as they protected Kelric with their bodies. The air glittered with orange sparks, and where the beams touched ground, it exploded in eye-searing flashes. Debris flew everywhere and dust swirled around the fountain.

Kelric lay with his palms braced on the ground, tensed like a wire drawn taut. He wanted to throw off his guards and vault to his feet; it took a great effort of will to let them do their job. His enhanced vision picked out bullets headed toward him and also their demise in flashes of orange light.

After what seemed an eon, his bodyguards stopped firing. The air had the astringent smell of annihilated bitons. Sirens blared throughout the plaza, and engines rumbled in the sky.

"Imperator Skolia?" Najo asked, getting to his feet. "Are you all right?"

Kelric pushed up on his elbow. "I'm fine. Are we clear?"

"Looks like it," Strava said. She was kneeling over him, her calves on either side of his legs while she surveyed the ruined plaza. Najo scanned the area with his gauntlet monitors, and Axer was speaking into his gauntlet comm.

Kelric stabbed a panel on his own gauntlet. "Major Qahot, what the hell is going on?"

The voice of his security chief came out of the mesh. "The shooters are dead, sir. It doesn't look like they expected to survive."

"Suicide assassins," Kelric said.

"Apparently. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," he growled. "I want to know how the hell they got in here." The Assembly drew delegates from all over Skolia. Some attended through the web, but many gathered in Selei City. ISC had ramped up security so high, they should have known if someone a hundred kilometer radius even breathed oddly.

Strava got up, freeing Kelric. He climbed to his feet and spoke quietly to his bodyguards. "Thank you."

Najo inclined his head, and Strava lifted her hand in acknowledgement. Axer was getting updates on his gauntlet and probably his ear comm, too. ISC police were already combing the plaza, adjacent parks, and no doubt every nearby building. Flyers rumbled above, gold and black, reflected in the mirrored skyscrapers.

Kelric finally let himself absorb he had almost just died.

* * *

"They never had a chance," Major Qahot said, pacing across the security office beneath the Assembly Hall. A stocky man with bristly hair, he moved as if he were caged, unable to break free until he solved the mystery of Kelric's attackers.

People filled the room: officers, aides, and his guards. And Roca. Kelric had arranged to have Dehya and his brothers taken to safety, as well as the First Councilor and the Inner Circle. Roca, however, refused to leave. His people would take her if he ordered it, but he knew it would antagonize her. For now, in the depths of this secured command center, he let her stay. She stood by a wall, listening while his officers investigated the attempt on his life. Kelric sat at a console that monitored the Assembly Hall, Selei City, the countryside, even orbital traffic. From here, he could access any system on the planet.

"The assassins could never have reached you," Qahot said as he paced. "Their clothes were shrouded against sensors, but the moment they drew their weapons, it triggered alarms all over Selei City. Their shots would never have hit home."

Roca spoke, her voice like tempered steel. "They should never have gotten close enough to shoot."

Perspiration beaded on Qahot's forehead. "It won't happen again, Your Highness."

"Imperator Skolia." Strava spoke from her seat at another console. "We've identified the security hole that let the assassins get their guns by our systems."

"A hole?" Kelric said. "How did that happen?"

"It migrated from another system." She was reading from one of her screens. "The Hinterland Deployment."

Kelric froze. The Hinterland Deployment guarded Coba. "How could that affect us? It's a different region of space."

She rubbed her chin as she studied the data. "It's odd. A few bytes are missing from a security mod in the Hinterland codes. Almost nothing at all. But the hole propagated to other systems." She looked up at Kelric. "The mesh-techs couldn't locate the cause, but they're patching the hole."

It was all Kelric could do to remain impassive. One little hole in Hinterland security. Just one, but it had spread. Because it hadn't been properly coded. Because it should never have existed. Because he had made it in secret.

Kelric had told Dirac to "forget" Coba was the focus of the Hinterland Deployment. He should have known better. The deletion had ended up drawing far more attention than if he had done nothing. Hell, it had nearly gotten him killed.

"Keep me apprised of their progress," he told Strava.

"Will do, sir."

He swiveled his chair to Axer, who was standing by another console. "Do you have anything on the three assassins?"

A frown creased the broad planes of the guard's face. "Sir, they were delegates." He cupped his hand to his ear, listening to his comm. "They've been members of the Assembly for years. The police found records in their quarters."

Axer's careful expression didn't fool Kelric. His guards shielded their minds and didn't talk much, but he knew them well. Axer was worried.

"What do you have on them so far?" Kelric asked.

"They feared what would happen if Councilor Roca lost the vote." He glanced at Kelric's mother. "I'm sorry, ma'am."

"Why would they fear the vote?" she asked. "Their seats aren't hereditary."

"They thought it would give Imperator Skolia too much power and you too little."

Kelric stared at him. "They would assassinate me to support my mother?"

Roca's voice hardened. "They deserved to die."

Don't, Kelric thought to her.

No one tries to murder my child and gets away with it.

Kelric recognized the fire in her eyes. Normally she was a peaceful woman, but threats to her family brought out a ferocity that startled even him. He thought of his years of anguish on Coba. Had she known, she would have retaliated. And if today's assassination had succeeded? Roca was next in line to become Imperator. It was among the more bizarre ramifications of their extended life spans, that a parent could be her child's heir.

Had he died, the Closure document would have released itself to the authorities as soon the news became public. ISC would have gone to find Ixpar and his children. He had always known that could happen, but when he had written the document, he had seen no other choice.

Kelric? Roca's forehead furrowed. You think I will retaliate against the families of the assassins?

He strengthened his shields. At least his defenses had been strong enough that she misread his thoughts. Let the courts deal with it.

She regarded him implacably.

I mean it, Mother. Let Legal handle this. He was aware of his guards watching. They probably knew he and Roca were conversing. As Jagernauts, they were psions, but if Roca even picked up so little through his shields, his guards wouldn't get anything. They had nowhere near her mental strength. Kelric had become a master at hiding from his family, but he was so very tired of cutting himself off from everyone.

Security suspected something was up, Roca thought. But they never expected this.

So you really were trying to start a rumor yesterday.

Yes. To trace its source.

Apparently its source found us first, he thought dourly.

Roca exhaled. It seems so.

Kelric glanced at Major Qahot, who was standing with his hand cupped to his ear, tapping into some data stream. "Major, do we have leads on who the assassins were working with?" Kelric asked.

"It looks like only those three were involved," Qahot said. "Records of their correspondence indicate they've grown disaffected over the years." Then he added, "Yesterday, one of them told another delegate you should be 'voted out' of your seat permanently."

Kelric knew the Imperator wasn't well-liked, but he hadn't thought other delegates wanted him dead. Had he lost sight of his humanity in the performance of his duties?

Axer was watching Kelric's face. "Sir," he said quietly. "They were fanatics. No matter what you did, they would have objected to the principle of an Imperator."

As much as Kelric knew Axer was trying to help, his doubts remained. Maybe Denric was right. But he had to do his job, even if people hated him for it. He spoke tiredly. "Do checks on all the Assembly delegates and their aides. If anyone else was involved, we need to find out."

"We'll take care of it," Qahot said.

A door opened across the room to admit a Jagernaut in black leathers. Vazar. She strode to Kelric's console. "Primary Majda reporting, sir."

Kelric stood up. "Are my Joint Commanders safe?"

"Yes, sir." Her posture was ramrod straight. "General Majda and Primary Tapperhaven have left Parthonia. Admiral Barzun is on the Orbiter. General Stone is on Diesha. All are under increased protection."

"Good," he said. Her tension snapped against his barriers. Yesterday she had voted against the Ruby Dynasty; today she was tasked with protecting their interests. Neither of them missed the irony. He went around the console. In a low voice only she could hear, he added, "You're on duty here until I get back. Don't disappoint me."

"I won't."

He felt her mood: regardless of her vote, she would protect his family with her life. He had to respect the integrity that spurred her to vote as she believed right even when she knew it would alienate him and imperil her own Assembly seat.

Kelric beckoned to Roca, and she joined him as he headed out of the center. He felt her anger at Vazar. But she said nothing. She rarely spoke aloud to him when he was dealing with ISC. He had realized she didn't want to interfere with his authority. He doubted she would, but he appreciated the consideration.

Her bodyguards were outside, three instead of the usual two. They fell into formation with Najo, Strava, and Axer, and all of them walked down the glossy corridor, the guards ahead or behind Kelric and Roca.

"With supporters like those assassins," Roca said, "I don't need enemies."

"It's not your fault," he said.

"You're a damn fine commander, Kelric. Don't let what happened today make you think otherwise."

He rubbed his neck, working at stiffness even his nanomeds couldn't seem to ease. "Doubt is good for the soul."

Her normally dulcet voice turned icy. "Everyone involved will pay."

She reminded him of the wild cats that prowled the Teotec Mountains on Coba. "Let the courts deal with it."

"Of course."

He frowned at her. She never gave in that easily. He knew she wouldn't rest until she was convinced they had punished everyone connected with the attempt on his life.

The assassins had forced him to face certain facts. If he died, Roca would become Imperator. She didn't want the title; she was trained to succeed Dehya as Assembly Key. But no one was better prepared for it, certainly none of his siblings. At the same time she was taking command, the Closure document would come to light, with all that meant. And he would no longer be alive to watch over Coba.

* * *

Most people left the city through Selei Interstellar Starport. Kelric went to the Admiral Starport, a facility used by military and government officials, and boarded an ISC racer with his guards. They left Parthonia just after night's mid-hour, flying swift and silent.


King's Spectrum

Hot wind tugged Kelric's leather jacket and his pullover underneath. Gusts pulled at the Talha scarf hanging around his neck. Woven from coarse white and black yarn, it resembled a muffler, with tassels along its edges.

Carrying his duffle, he walked down the sand-scoured street of a base isolated in the desert. Najo, Axer, and Strava stalked at his side, sleek and lethal, each with the bulk of a Jumbler on the hip. They scanned the area continually and monitored it with their gauntlets. They weren't happy about this trip, even less so because he had told them almost nothing of his intentions.

They encountered no one. The place consisted of a few wide streets bordered by unused buildings. Robots kept the tiny port in shape, but travelers rarely visited. Nothing more than a low wall surrounded the base; beyond it, desert stretched in every direction, sand dunes mottled with spiky green plants, and bluffs streaked with red and yellow layers of rock.

They soon reached a wide gap in the wall. That was it. No gate. Nothing. On this side, he was a Skolian: on the other, his citizenship ceased to matter.

Accompanied by his guards, Kelric walked out into the Coban desert. Restricted territory. A pitted windrider stood about fifty meters away, partially buried in drifts of sand.

Kelric spoke into his gauntlet. "Bolt, connect me to the port EI." He could have thought the command to his node, but he wanted his guards to witness what he had to say.

Bolt's voice came out of the mesh. "Connecting."

A deeper voice spoke, that of the EI that ran the port. "ISC-Coba attending."

"ISC-Coba," Kelric said, "I'm sending you some codes. Use them to access the Kyle web and contact the Orbiter space station, in particular the EI called 'Dirac.'"

"Understood," ISC-Coba said.

Najo watched him with that uncanny ability of his to seem utterly still. Strava rested her hand on her Jumbler while she scanned the desert. Axer monitored the area with his gauntlet.

"Contact made," ISC-Coba said.

Dirac's rich baritone rumbled. "My greetings."

Kelric looked north to mountains that reared against the pale sky. "Dirac, how long until my Closure becomes permanent?"

"Ninety-seven days," Dirac said.

Najo stiffened, his eyes widening. Axer raised his head, and Strava snapped her attention back to Kelric. Learning he would be legally dead in ninety-seven days had to be unnerving for the people tasked with ensuring he stayed alive.

Kelric turned to the nearby windrider. It was painted like a giant althawk, with red wings and a rusted head that had once gleamed. The landing gear resembled black talons, or it would if he could have seen it under the sand dunes that had drifted around the aircraft.

"Dirac," he said. "Cancel the Closure."

A pause. "Cancelled," Dirac said.

Najo started to speak. Kelric didn't know how he looked, but whatever Najo was about to say, he changed his mind. Axer and Strava exchanged glances.

"Closing connection," Kelric told Dirac.

"Orbiter connection closed," ISC-Coba rumbled.

"ISC-Coba," Kelric said. "Verify my identity."

"You are the Imperator of the Skolian Imperialate."

Kelric stopped then, unable to take the final step. He tried to go on, but no words came.

"Do you have a command?" ISC-Coba asked.

"Yes." He took a deep breath. "Change the status of this world from Restricted to Protected."

"That requires a review by Imperial Space Command."

"I'm the Imperator. That's review enough."


Kelric knew of no other case where ISC had altered a world's status without a review. The process could take years. However, in theory nothing prohibited him from acting unilaterally.

Suddenly ISC-Coba said, "Status changed."

Kelric exhaled. A human probably would have protested. "End communication."

"Connection closed," Bolt said.

Najo spoke. "Sir, to protect you, we need to know what's going on."

Kelric indicated the mountains. "We're going to a city up there. The air is even thinner than here, so use caution in any exertions. The food varies from irritating to toxic, at least to us, but our nanomeds can deal with it. Boiling the water helps. For a short stay, we should be all right." Eighteen years here, with his nanomeds failing, had nearly killed him. By the time he had escaped, he had been dying. Without Jeejon, he wouldn't have survived.

A pang of grief hit Kelric. He had needed this year to say good-bye to her. He remembered what she had told him just before she died: Someday you must finish that chapter of your life you left behind for me.

He looked out over the desert. Be well, love. He sent his thought into the wind, across the sands, as if it could float into the pale sky, to the stars and beyond, until it reached her spirit.

"Sir, I don't understand," Strava said. "Why are we here?"

Kelric continued to gaze at the desert. "So I can see the city. Walk down a street." He turned to them. "Buy a sausage at market."

They regarded him with bewilderment.

Finally Axer said, "What are the threats?"

"To me?" Kelric asked. The greatest threat here was him, to Coba.

"Yes, sir," Axer said.

Kelric answered wryly. "People in the city might gawk at my metallic skin. They will probably stare more at you three, with those Jumblers. Their city guards just carry stunners."

"You seem to know this place," Najo said.

More than I ever admitted, he thought, but only to himself. The sight of the land, the smell of the air, the feel of the wind: it was all achingly familiar.

"I spent eighteen years here," he said.

"Gods above," Strava said. "Sir! Is this where—"

Kelric held up his hand. "None of you can talk about this without my leave." He had known them for years and trusted them, at least as much as he trusted anyone. But he had left a trail this time, and if and when questions arose, he wanted to be the one who responded.

"We won't say anything," Najo told him. Axer and Strava nodded their agreement.

"I'm not sure what will happen at the city." Kelric rolled a tassel of his Talha between his fingers. "For personal reasons, I may find it hard to speak. You won't know the language. It has roots in common with ours, but it has evolved in isolation for thousands of years. Your nodes can analyze it and eventually provide translations, but at first it may sound like gibberish."

"What hostiles should we be aware of?" Axer asked.

Kelric would have laughed if this hadn't hurt so much. "These people are peaceful. Treat them gently."

"We need a flyer to reach the mountains," Strava said.

Kelric indicated the windrider. "I flew that here eighteen years ago. If it still works, we can take it to Karn."

"Karn?" Najo asked.

Softly Kelric said, "My home."

* * *

The voice on the radio sent a chill up Kelric's spine. The woman spoke in normal tones—in the Teotecan language. "Sky Racer, I've received your ID. Are you new here? I don't recognize your codes." She paused. "Or your accent."

"It's an old rider," Kelric said. "I haven't been to Karn in years."

"Welcome back." She sounded wary.

"My thanks." Talking to an Outsider was strange. His years on Coba, keeping an Oath of silence, had reinforced his taciturn nature. As Imperator, he had to overcome his reticence to speak, but being here brought it back. In all his time on Coba, he had never had a conversation like this. Piloting a rider wasn't that different from the antique aircraft he flew as a hobby, and he had overheard pilots during his trips as a Calani, so he had an idea of protocols. But this all felt surreal.

"Request permission to land," Kelric said.

"Go ahead," the woman said. "Lane Five."

Quis patterns appeared on his screen, providing directions he easily read. In the co-pilot's seat, Najo peered at the symbols, his brow furrowed. Axer and Strava had the two seats in back, and Kelric felt them concentrating on his Teotecan. He could have translated, but he wanted the privacy of his adopted language for a little while longer.

He spread the wing slats and circled the airfield, fitting into the pattern of two other riders. At most Estates, he would have been the only one; Karn, however, had the largest airport on Coba. The woman in the tower tried to draw him into conversation, but he remained noncommittal. She was more curious about a man piloting a rider than about his accent.

Kelric landed reasonably well, though the craft bounced. While his guards unstrapped from their seats, he went to the locker in the back. He hung his jacket on a seat. As he pulled off his shirt, a surge of pleasure leaked around Strava's mental shields, which she immediately clamped down. Facing away from her, Kelric smiled. Her appreciation of her shirtless commander embarrassed her far more than him.

He removed his duffle from the locker and donned the white shirt he had packed. It matched the ones he had worn here, even the embroidery on the cuffs. Next he took out his armbands. For a moment he stood, staring at the engraved circles of gold. Then he slid them on his arms. They felt strange. He almost took them off again, then decided that for this one day he would wear these signs of his former life.

He shrugged back into his jacket, in part against the chill winds of the Teotecs, but also to hide his bands and gauntlets. His dice bag hung from his belt and his Talha around his neck. Seeing the Talha, people would assume he came from Haka Estate, which was far from Karn in both distance and culture. It would, he hoped, account for his accent and bodyguards. He didn't have the dark coloring of the Hakaborn, so he obviously wasn't native to that Estate, a desert land of shimmering red and gold cliffs blasted by sandstorms. That could explain why he neither covered his face with the Talha nor wore a robe. In this age, only Haka men went robed. And Calani. But of course no sane person would believe a Calani was out on his own with only three guards.

Then he disembarked from the rider. He stood on the tarmac with his bodyguards, wind tugging his clothes, surrounded by spectacular scenery. To the west, the Teotec Mountains rolled out in forested slopes; to the south and east they dropped down in endless ripples of green to the horizon. The city of Karn jumbled north of the port, and the Upper Teotecs towered starkly above it. Clustered beneath those peaks, Karn basked, yellow and white in the morning sunshine from a cloud-flecked sky.

* * *

The lane of blue and white cobblestones was as familiar to Kelric as a picture seen a thousand times but never touched. He walked with Najo, Strava, and Axer, marveling at the city he had lived in yet never experienced. Shops crowded both sides of the street, and wooden signs hung from bars above the doors, creaking in the wind. He passed glassblowers, potters, butchers, and dice makers.

The pure mountain air, exhilarating in its clarity, stirred memories edged with beauty and pain. After Savina's death, he had ended up at Varz Estate, high in the Teotecs. The Manager had been a nightmare, abusive and cold. She respected neither his grief nor his need to see his child. His repressed fury had saturated the Quis and roused the sleeping dragon of violence the Cobans had so long submerged. It was more than a year before Ixpar brought him to Karn. In the exquisite serenity of her Calanya, he had begun to heal, but it had been too late by then. His influence had saturated the Quis for nearly eighteen years, and finally it spiked. Nothing could have stopped the war.

A pack of boys burst out of a side lane, laughing and calling to one another. They gaped at Kelric but kept going down the lane, jumping over invisible obstacles with shouts of delight.

"Happy kids," Najo commented.

Kelric couldn't answer. His memories brought such longing. He missed Coba. He had spent the worst times of his life here—and the best.

He knew the location of the market only from maps he had studied as a Calani, and he wasn't sure he could find it. He heard it first, a rumble of voices in the street. The lane crooked around a corner—and opened into a bustling plaza like a tributary feeding a great lake. Merchants, stalls, and customers thronged the area. Buildings two or three stories high bordered it, many with balconies. Chains adorned with metal Quis dice hung from their eaves, clinking in the ever-present wind. A tumult of voices poured over Kelric like Teotecan music. So much color and vibrancy and life.

"Too many people," Axer said, his hand on his gun.

Kelric barely heard. He walked forward and Cobans flowed around him. Merchants called out their wares; children ran and hopped and shouted; street artists sang, played instruments, or acted out skits.

In the first Quis game Kelric had ever played, the Dahl Manager had bet him one tekal, "enough to buy a sausage in market." He had owed her Estate that tekal for twenty-eight years. He didn't know how much a sausage cost now, though, besides which, he had no Coban money.

Although people noticed him, they paid less attention than he had expected. Just as he started to relax, though, a woman in the red and gold of the City Guard stared hard at him. Then she spun around and strode across the plaza.

"Not good," Axer said, watching the woman.

"She knows we're out of place," Najo said. "She's going to tell someone."

"Probably at the Estate." Kelric indicated a fortress of amber-hued stone and ancient crenellations on a hill across the city. "The Manager lives there." His heartbeat felt too fast. He might soon see Ixpar, perhaps his children. Just as he had needed time alone after Jeejon died, now he needed to prepare. Somehow. Before he faced Ixpar, he wanted to know how it felt to be part of Coba in a way he had never known when he lived here.

Strava was studying him with that penetrating gaze of hers. "What is a Manager?"

"The governor of a city-estate," Kelric said. "The Manager of Karn, this place, is also Minister. She rules Coba."

Najo tensed. "Does she pose a danger to your person?"

Danger indeed. "No," Kelric said. The only danger was to his heart.

Nearby, a man was sitting against the yellow-stone wall of a shop. He wore fine clothes: a white shirt, suede trousers with gold buttons up the seams, and suede boots. He had an air of confidence, like a king in his milieu. Quis dice were piled on his low table.

"Someone you know?" Strava asked.

"I've never seen him before," Kelric said.

A woman had seated herself at the table, and a crowd was gathering. Kelric stayed back, behaving like a Haka man, never smiling. With so many people around, he absorbed a sense of their moods even through his shields. They found him exotic, but he didn't sense anyone realized he was more than a visitor from a distant city. Although his guards and their guns disturbed people, they didn't seem to realize the Jumblers weren't just oddly designed stunners.

The man at the Quis table cleared off his extra dice, and the woman rolled out her set, pieces carved from wood. The two players were talking, setting a bet that involved many coins and goods, it sounded like. When they finished, the woman opened the game by playing a blue cylinder.

Conversations drifted around Kelric from the crowd.

"I heard she came all the way from Ahkah to challenge him," a man was saying.

"His reputation is spreading," a woman replied.

"I can't figure why he isn't in a Calanya," another woman said. "Everyone says he's good enough."

"Maybe he has some problem," someone else said.

A man snorted. "Right. A problem with living in a cage."

"Why go in a Calanya?" another man said. "He's making pots of coins here, and he doesn't have to abide by an Oath straight out of the Old Age."

"Did you hear about the offworld Calani in Viasa?" a woman asked. "Viasa Manager kidnapped him, just like in the Old Age."

"Heard he was good-looking," a second woman said.

A third one chuckled. "You want to carry one off, too?"

The other woman bristled. "I don't need to kidnap a man to get a husband."

"You haven't heard?" a man said. "The fellow escaped."

"He did not," a woman said.

"Play Quis with someone from Viasa," he countered. "It's in their dice. He stole himself a windrider and whisked off."

Kelric listened as people embellished Jeremiah's tale. Manager Viasa had built her cover story well; he heard no hints of his own involvement. So he returned his focus to the game. The players competed rather than studying problems or plotting the ascendance of their Estate. They were opposed rather than aligned. It reminded him of the Quis played among Managers, but on a less intense scale, for fun rather than politics.

Both players surely rated the title of Quis Master. They built towers, arches, stacks, bridges, rings, claws, and more. Whenever one gained advantage, the other wrested it back. The man was probably the better player, but the woman seemed more experienced. They vied solely for advantage, without the complexity of Calanya Quis. Kelric had no doubt the man would thrive in a Calanya: he had the gift. He would find such Quis far more satisfying than anything Out here. That he chose freedom despite the price it exacted—never to play true Quis—hinted at far-reaching changes in Coba's social structure.

Suddenly the man grinned. "My game."

"What?" The woman looked up with a start.

Murmurs rolled among the crowd. "He hasn't won . . . "

"His tower has more dice than hers . . . "

"She collapsed his tower . . . "

"But look! He hid an arch."

Axer spoke to Kelric in a low voice. "Do you have any idea what these people are saying?"

"They're arguing over the game," Kelric said absently, intent on the dice. The man had bridged several structures with an elegant arch, increasing their worth enough for him to claim victory. He had managed it despite his opponent's vigilance because he used dice of a similar color to surrounding pieces, so it looked as if he were creating lesser structures. A camouflage.

The woman ceded the match, and applause scattered as people slapped their palms against their thighs. After arranging to pay her debt, the woman stood and bowed to the Quis Master. Then she went on her way.

Kelric walked forward.

The gleam in the man's eyes when he saw Kelric was the same as everywhere in settled space, the calculation of a master player sizing up a rube. Kelric eased down his barriers. With so many people at market, it was hard to distinguish moods, but he gathered the man didn't see him as a challenge. Good male Quis players were in a Calanya. He also associated Kelric's large size with low intelligence. The crowd that had watched the last game was dispersing.

"Have a seat," the Quis Master said. "I'm Talv."

As Kelric sat down, he wondered if he had somehow let on that he didn't know market-style Quis. He had never learned to gamble, and he had played nothing but Quis solitaire for ten years. He wasn't certain he could beat Talv. But if he could win a few tekals, he could buy a sausage and indulge his admittedly whimsical desire to repay his old debt.

Talv glanced at the pouch on Kelric's belt. "You've brought your set, I see." He started to remove his extra dice.

Kelric knew if he rolled out jeweled Calanya dice, the game would end before it started. As much as a Quis Master might want to challenge a Calani, he would never risk the ire of a Manager. So he indicated Talv's extra dice. "I prefer those." Speaking was even harder here. "Your extra set."

"Are you sure?" Talv yawned. "Most people find it easier to use their own. They will be more familiar to you."

It was, of course, something any child knew. "Yours will be fine," Kelric said.

"All right." Talv smirked at him. "What shall we bet?"

"How much for a sausage?"

"A sausage?" Talv wasn't even trying to hide his disdain. "One tekal."

So. Same price. "Let us play for two tekals."

Talv shrugged. "Well. You can start."

"Shouldn't we draw dice?" Going first was an advantage.

"If you insist." Talv pulled a disk out of his pouch and handed over the bag. Kelric took out a lower-ranked piece, a flat square. So he had lost the draw.

"Your move," Kelric said.

"So it is." As Talv set a red pyramid in the playing area, he projected both boredom and the belief that the game would be over fast enough to make the tedium bearable.

A sense of opening came to Kelric. After so many years of solitaire, sitting here made him feel . . . expanded. It hadn't happened with Jeremiah or Dehya, but he had held back then. Now he envisioned a myriad of elegant patterns stemming from the one die Talv had placed. He set down a grey pyramid with curved sides.

Talv looked up at him. "If your die doesn't touch mine, you aren't building a structure."

"I know," Kelric said.

"Are you sure you want to play that piece?" Talv said. "Nonstandard dice are difficult to use."

Kelric was growing irritated. Calani never disrupted a session, especially not with unasked-for Quis lessons. "It's your move."

"Suit yourself." Talv set down orange pentahedron.

Kelric saw his intent: a queen's spectrum. Few players could manage them; they were too easy to block. Kelric had slipped one past Dehya because she hadn't known the rules, but he wouldn't be that lucky with her again. To succeed against someone who knew Quis, Talv either had to camouflage the spectrum or else hope his opponent was too stupid to see it. He hadn't bothered with a camouflage.

Kelric had met only one player on Coba who consistently managed to build a Queen's spectrum in high level Quis: Mentar, the Karn Fourth Level, widower of the previous Minister. Mentar's Quis had thrilled Kelric. Ixpar had claimed that when he and Mentar played dice, the world shook.

This callow player was no Mentar. Kelric slid an aqua piece against the orange die, disrupting the spectrum. Talv grunted and placed a yellow cube. So. He was trying to recover his spectrum by turning it at an angle. Kelric blocked him with an ocher cube.

"Huh." Talv rubbed his chin. He set down a green die, again turning his spectrum.

Enough, Kelric thought. He bridged Talv's pyramid and his own cube with an arch. The cube had a higher rank, so the advantage went to Kelric. He had no idea what points went with it, but he doubted he had enough to win. And indeed, Talv continued playing. Good. Kelric didn't want to stop; he was envisioning an exquisite pattern. His Quis thoughts pleased him, and he set about making them reality.

Talv became quieter as they played. His sneer vanished. He spent more time considering his moves. Then he began to sweat.

Kelric built for the sheer beauty of it. Dice spread in patterns of platonic solids, and geometric elegance covered the table. After a while, Talv stopped sweating, and his game took on a new quality, as if he were appreciating a work of art. When he quit fighting Kelric, he became a better Quis partner. The structures flourished.

With regret, Kelric pulled himself back to here and now. As much as he wanted to keep playing, he had business to attend. He set down a white sphere. When Talv started to place a ring, Kelric spoke quietly. "It's my game."

Talv lifted his head like a swimmer surfacing from a dive. "Your game?"

A woman behind them said, "I don't believe it!"

Startled, Kelric looked around—and froze.


They had crowded around, more even than for the last game. The woman who played before was gaping at the table. Others looked from her to the board, obviously puzzled.

"What is it?" Talv said.

Kelric turned back. He tapped a line of dice that wound across the table, around and through other structures: grey, orange, gold, yellow, yellow-green, green, aqua, blue, indigo, purple, and finally the white sphere.

Murmurs swelled in the crowd. Talv stared at the structure for a long time. Finally he lifted his gaze to Kelric. "I don't think I've heard tell of anyone, even the highest of the Calani, building a grand augmented queen's spectrum."


The Twelfth Band

Kelric hadn't intended to draw attention; he had become too caught up in the game. He had to admit, though, it was a good spectrum. He inclined his head to Talv. "You play well."

"I had thought so," Talv said. "Now I know better."

"You have talent. It's wasted on market Quis."

Talv's voice heated. "You won't lock me in a Calanya!"

"Find other ways to use your talent," Kelric said. "Join the Minister's staff. Work your way up in the Estate Quis."

Talv snorted. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm the wrong sex."

"No laws forbid it."

"Sure they do," Talv said. "They're just unwritten."

"So break them."

"Who are you?"

Kelric smiled slightly. "I believe you owe me two tekals."

Talv squinted at him. "Just two?"

"That was the bet."

Talv shook his head, but he handed over two coins. Kelric turned the copper heptagons over in his hand. One side showed a Quis structure, a nested tower that symbolized protection. The other had the portrait of a regal queen.

"That's Ixpar Karn," Kelric said.

"Haven't you ever seen a tekal before?"

He looked up to see Talv watching him oddly. Kelric rose to his feet. "Thank you for the game."

"The honor was mine." Talv stood as well. "That was Quis like nothing I've ever played."

It was a high compliment among Quis Masters. Kelric nodded to honor to his opponent. His guards gathered around him, and he could tell they wanted him away from this attention. He left the table, and people stepped respectfully aside as he walked through the crowd. He felt their curiosity.

Kelric went deeper into market until he lost himself among the crowds. A familiar aroma teased his nose, wafting from a stall with yellow slats. A sausage merchant stood behind the counter, a plump man with a white apron pulled across his large belly. He beamed as Kelric paused. "What can I get for you, goodsir?" He motioned at sausages hanging from the rafters. "I've the best spiced-reds from here to Haka."

Kelric indicated a fat specimen. "Kadilish."

"Ah! A man after my own tastes." The merchant wrapped the sausage in waxy paper, accepted Kelric's tekal, and handed over the purchase as if it were the most natural thing to do. For him, it was. To Kelric, it was another watershed.

"Sir," Najo said, his voice uneasy.

He followed Najo's gaze across the plaza to where a street opened into the market. Far beyond it, on its distant hill, the Estate glowed amber in the sunlight. Strava stepped closer, and Kelric was aware of Axer behind them, tall and solid.

Someone was entering the plaza. Many someones. Kelric drew in a deep breath. They came in formation, all wearing the uniform of the City Guard, and they were headed toward him. He had no idea if they suspected his identity. If Ixpar had sent them, she might hate him for drawing attention to her world. He had no reason to think she would want to see him. But he couldn't turn back.

In the same moment Kelric's guards drew their Jumblers and took aim at the approaching group, he saw the woman walking in its center. He grabbed Najo's arm and spoke in Skolian. "Don't harm them!"

His guards waited, poised, glancing from him to the woman. She was tall even among Cobans. Her hair blazed like fire, pulled loosely into a braid. Her suede trousers did nothing to hide the muscular lines of her long, long legs. She had a powerful beauty, wild and fierce under a veneer of elegance—a face that could inspire armies and conquer a world.

For Kelric, time slowed down. She continued toward him, never pausing despite the monstrous guns of his guards, and in that crystalline moment, he thought the two of them would be here forever. She came closer, closer still, and then she was in front of him, her gray eyes filled with incredulity. He had thought of a million words for this moment, planned for days. For years. Now the words left him.

"Kelric?" she asked, her voice husky.

She was one of the few Cobans who had known him as Kelric rather than Sevtar. Seeing her filled him with an emotion he couldn't define, jagged and painful and miraculous. They stood together as if they were inside a bubble, and he wanted to touch her, feel her cheek, her hair, her lips, but he feared even to move, lest it burst this tenuous sphere.

He spoke in a voice rough with the feelings he couldn't express. "My greetings, Ixpar."


Rosewood Suite

"It cannot be." She reached into her pocket and drew out a half-melted ring of gold. "This is all that remains of Kelric Valdoria."

He pulled up his jacket cuff and uncovered the guards embedded in his gauntlets. "These, too."

Ixpar looked from him to his bodyguards and back to his face. In her dusky voice, she said, "If the god of the dawn has come seeking vengeance, I entreat him to reconsider."

"Vengeance?" He would have laughed if this hadn't all hurt so much. "For what? My shattering Coba?"

Moisture gathered in her eyes. "Ten years is a long time."

Too long. He wanted to say so much, but he could neither move nor speak.

Finally he found his voice, enough to ask a question that was always with him, in the back of his mind. "My children?"

Her face gentled. "They are well."

Softly he asked, "And who came after me?"

"After?" She seemed as lost for words as him.

"As your Akasi."

"None now."

"You have no husband?"

"I thought not." Her voice caught. "It seems I was wrong."

He took her into his arms then and embraced the wife he had never expected to see again. She tensed, and he was aware of his bodyguards looming around them. Gods only knew what they thought.

Then Ixpar exhaled and put her arms around him, leaning her head against his. He held a stranger, yet he recognized the curves and strength of her body. If he had erred in coming here, it was too late to turn back. Too many people knew. In this incredible instant, he didn't care.

* * *

Kelric stood with Ixpar by a high window that overlooked Karn. Houses clustered along the streets and down the hills below. Plumberry vines grew in a profusion of purple and blue flowers, climbing walls and spiraling up street lamps. So many times he had stood savoring this view from this window.

"I'd forgotten how beautiful it is here," he said.

Ixpar was leaning against the wall across the window from him. "I never did."

He turned to find her looking at him, not the city. She had that quality he remembered well, a serenity that came when she wasn't preoccupied with politics or war. Soon she would be pacing and planning again, her agile mind occupied with affairs of state. But she let him see this side she showed so few people, indeed that few knew existed. She had always been compelling, but the years had added a maturity that made it difficult to stop gazing at her face.

"You look good," Kelric said.

"To see you again is a miracle. But I fear your reasons for coming." She shook her head. "What happens now? Will Skolia retaliate against Coba?"

"I won't allow it."

"You can't stop the Imperator."

Softly he said, "Yes, I can."

Her voice tightened. "You said otherwise ten years ago."

It was hard to tell her. Once she knew what he had become, this bubble that held them would burst. So he said only, "The Imperator has changed the status of Coba."

Her face paled. "We no longer have the Restriction?"

"As of this morning, no. Coba is Protected."

She clenched the window frame. "What does it mean?"

He had meant to reassure, not alarm her. He tried again. "In some ways it's like Restriction. A Protected world is even harder to visit. But you decide who comes here. You control what happens. And your people now have Skolian citizenship."

She stared at him. "Why would your brother do this thing?"

"He didn't."

"Then who did?"

The world was too quiet. Muffled. His voice seemed far away. "Me."

For a long time she looked at him. Finally she spoke in a low voice. "Winds above."

"Ixpar, don't."

"Do I say Your Majesty? Or Imperator Skolia?"

Heat spread in his face. "Call me Kelric. Hell, even Sevtar."

She started to answer, then stopped as if she had glimpsed something strange. "Am I your wife by Skolian law?"

He thought of the Closure he had cancelled. "Yes."

"Doesn't that make me the Imperator's consort?"

He regarded her steadily. "Yes."

"Gods," she murmured. "I am honored. But Kelric, that changes nothing. Your empire can still destroy us."

He knew she would never have allowed Jeremiah Coltman to study them if she had felt all offworld influence would bring harm. "Change will come. You can't hide forever. Must it be for the worse?"

Her gaze never wavered. "We would be just as wrong to deny the danger now as we were when we took you into the Calanya."

He knew her fear. He shared it. Then he thought of the Assembly vote that had strengthened his position. "I control ISC. My influence becomes more established every year. I can set it up so no Skolian ever sets foot here." Kelric struggled for the right words. "But a parent has to let a child become an adult. Coba can't live protected all its life."

She regarded him dourly. "We are not children."

He suspected he would make it worse if he continued these inarticulate attempts to express himself. So he said, "Play Quis with me."

* * *

Ixpar placed the first die.

They sat at a table by the window and played dice at its highest level. Ixpar had always been brilliant, and the years had added even greater depth to her Quis. She wove patterns of other Managers into her structures, other Calani, other Estates. She synthesized a world into her Quis with a virtuosity that took his breath. Her patterns spoke of how the war had drenched Coba in violence and ruin. The recovery had taken years, but they were healing. He would destroy their hard-won stability.

Kelric remolded the structures to portray positive offworld effects. New technologies. Better educations. Health care. The mothers of his children had received nanomeds from him and passed them to his son and daughter; they would all live longer, healthier lives as a result. All Cobans could have those advantages. He wove patterns of Jeremiah; in allowing an offworlder here, Ixpar had dared to take a chance. He had expected Jeremiah to create turmoil, but the youth's Quis told another story, how he had benefited Coba.

Ixpar turned his patterns into comparisons of Skolia and Earth, symbolized by Kelric and Jeremiah. One aggressive and large; the other gentle and scholarly. One overwhelming; the other seeking friendship. Jeremiah would never hurt anyone; Kelric was the military commander of an empire.

He saw himself through her Quis and wasn't sure he knew that man, one with great strength of character, but also one who wielded a power so immense, he could crush them without realizing it. He built structures showing her how he would work in cooperation with the Managers of Coba. He would sit at Quis with them. Ixpar's eyes blazed, and she played fire opals, garnets, rubies. Angry dice. She would never agree to have her Calani play Quis with other Managers. That he sat in the Assembly as Imperator—that she could deal with. But for him to enter the Quis Council went against every principle she held true.

So he showed her harsher reality: someday the Imperialate would find Coba. Without his intervention, it could be in vengeance. Or perhaps, despite his best attempts to prevent it, the Traders would come. Her people should join the interstellar community on their terms. They should open or close their world according to their choice. They needed a gatekeeper. Him.

Ixpar countered with jagged patterns of destruction, of his life on Coba and the upheavals that followed. Her dice never accused, never damned. She blamed Coba. But he knew the truth. He had left deep, terrible wounds on this world.

Kelric paused, subdued. This intense session, with someone he hadn't seen for ten years, drained him. She believed that to protect Coba, they should strengthen its isolation until they could survive even if he died. With care, he offered her a new conclusion. All the finesse he lacked in the blunt power of his mind and body, he put into his dice. He had been a prisoner before, on Coba, with neither the understanding nor opportunity to control his effect on the Quis. Now he and Ixpar had the knowledge. Together they could make a better world.

Her Quis called him idealistic. Her patterns revealed the deep differences between his people and hers, his way of life and that of Coba. Skolia would saturate the Quis until it swamped Coba's unique, irreplaceable culture.

It doesn't have to be that way, he answered. He sifted a new idea into his dice: Quis was like the Kyle web. His people had created a web in Kyle space, a place humans entered only in thought. To open a gate to the Kyle required a telop. The most gifted telops created the star-spanning system that joined the Imperialate into a coherent whole.

Quis was a web. It, too, linked a civilization. Cobans communicated and took information from the world-spanning game; more adept players acted as operators; the rare geniuses who dedicated their lives to Quis defined its highest levels. The best players read moods, even thoughts, from the dice. With both Quis and the Kyle, it became hard to tell where the web left off and the mind began. Intellect and emotion; technology and art; communication and intuition: it all blended. Coba and Skolia could achieve marvels. At their best, they could produce a civilization greater than the sum of the two alone.

And at their worst? Ixpar asked.

He made no false promises; she could pick up nuances in his Quis he never meant to reveal. She knew his doubts, which had never left him, only receded. But she would also recognize his belief that he could protect Coba. She would have to choose what to trust.

Their session lasted hours. He had to return to Parthonia, yet long after he should have left for the starport, they continued to play. Their guards kept anyone from disturbing them. The people of Karn surely knew by now that their Minister was sitting at Quis with a Calani returned from the dead. Windriders would carry the news to other cities. Within days, all Coba would know: The Minister had sat at Quis with the Imperator.

* * *

Afternoon had melted into evening by the time Kelric and Ixpar pushed back from the table. Kelric stood up, his joints creaking. Age was creeping up on him even with the benefits of life extension.

"A good session," he said. More than good. It was worth ten years of solitaire.

"So it was," Ixpar murmured. She rose to her feet, and they stood together at the window above Karn. Long shadows from the mountains stretched across the city.

Leaning against the wall, Kelric gazed across the window at his wife. She looked as fit today as ten years ago. And as erotic. Quis had always had a sensual undercurrent for him with her.

"It's been a long time," he said.

She regarded him with smoky eyes. "Too long."

Kelric heard the invitation in her voice. He grasped her arm and drew her forward, into his embrace. But she resisted, her palms against his shoulders.

"I have a thing to say," she told him. "You should know."

That didn't sound auspicious. "Know what?"

"I remarried."

Kelric stiffened. Had he misinterpreted her mood? "You said you had no Akasi."

"I don't." Sadness touched her voice. "He passed away."

"Oh." Idiot, he told himself. "I'm sorry."

"It's been several years." Her face was pensive. "After the war, the Council felt I should remarry. As expected."

As expected. By law, the Minister had to wed a Calani, preferably the man with the highest level among the suitable candidates. "You mean Mentar?"

She nodded. "Together, he and I knew more of the Quis than anyone else alive. We had much in common."

He heard what she didn't say. "Did you love him?"

"I always had great affection for him."

"More as a father figure, I thought."

"I loved him." She paused. "In a quiet sort of way."

Kelric told her about Jeejon then. When he finished, Ixpar spoke with pain. "We each do as we should. But sometimes, I wish . . . we hadn't lost so much."

"I, too," he said.

Ixpar took his hand. Then she led him to a private inner door of the Rosewood Suite.

That evening, in the last rays of gilded sunlight slanting through the windows, they lay in the rosewood bed where they had loved each other so many years ago. Outside, in the city below and the world beyond, life continued, people working, bargaining, playing Quis. Beyond Coba, stars radiated, worlds turned in their celestial dance, and ships streaked among the settlements of thriving humanity, all oblivious to two people, neither of them young, who had lost so much in their lives, but for a brief time, found a bittersweet happiness.



On the world of Parthonia, Kelric waited in the Cathedral of Memories. Its sweeping wings graced Selei City, where elegant towers rose into the lavender sky. Standing within a chamber, he gazed out a one-way panel of glass. The Royal Concourse, a wide path of white stone, led from the cathedral steps outside to an open-air coliseum. Metallic dust sparkled in the walkway, tiny nano-systems that monitored pedestrians, just as security systems monitored every micron of the city.

People lined the concourse and filled the coliseum. Sunlight streamed, vendors sold food, and military officers paced among the crowds. Breezes stirred flags with the Imperialate insignia on tall poles in front of the coliseum.

The Promenade was among the most popular Skolian festivals. Obtaining passes to attend required stratospheric connections. But the spectacle would be broadcast throughout the Imperialate, and people everywhere would celebrate. Kelric hoped they enjoyed themselves. It might be fun for the rest of the universe, but he and his security teams found it excruciating.

A door swooshed behind him, and he turned to see Najo. His bodyguard crossed the chamber and saluted, arms out, wrists crossed, fists clenched.

Kelric returned the salute. "Any news from the port?"

"Nothing, sir." Sympathy showed in his eyes. "I'm sorry."

Kelric felt heavy. He wanted to withdraw from the too-bright day and sit in private. He couldn't, so he just said, "Thank you."

"They still might come."

"Perhaps." But Kelric knew it was too late for Ixpar to change her mind. He had failed to convince her.

Ten days had passed since his trip to Coba. Ixpar had declined to return with him. He hadn't even met his children yet. He wanted them by his side so much it hurt, but the day he had sworn his Calanya Oath to Ixpar, he had vowed to protect her Estate with his life. He would keep his Oath. Just as he had spent all those years secluded in a Calanya, so now he would do the same for Coba, secluding a world.

Music filled the chamber from outside, the Skolian anthem, "The Lost Desert." Its exquisite melody could lift the spirit, but its bittersweet quality often brought people to tears.

The House of Jizarian began the Promenade. A man announced them, his voice coming out of orbs that floated above the concourse and coliseum. As the music shifted into the brighter theme of their House, the Jizarians poured out of the cathedral. Children ran down the steps and onto the Concourse. The adults followed in traditional costume, the women in silken tunics and trousers, the men in shirts and trousers with glinting threads. Their hair gleamed, mostly dark, but a few with lighter coloring. Kelric even saw a redhead.

The Matriarch came last, normally with dignity and age, but this one was barely twenty-four, having inherited her title when her mother passed away several years ago. Her hair tousled about her shoulders as she waved to the crowd. The spectators cheered and threw flowers as the Jizarians walked the Concourse.

"An attractive House," Najo said. "Vibrant."

"So they are," Kelric said, intent on his console. Everything was secure. He had an odd feeling, though, like a pressure on his mind. He checked the room where his family waited: Dehya, Roca, his siblings, and their families, including spouses and children. It hurt to see them. He would never know what it was like to share his life with his children and wife.

Najo spoke quietly. "They are happy and well. Safe."

Kelric couldn't answer. He knew Najo didn't mean his brothers and sisters. His guard was too perceptive, and Kelric didn't want to talk about it, not now, maybe never.

Outside, the Jizarians were entering the coliseum. The House of Nariz was leaving the cathedral, a small family of moderate lineage. The Akarads came next, a line of merchants with thriving fleets. The men wore robes over their clothes, but in a casual manner, letting them billow behind them in the breezes. The Shazarindas followed, less strict in their demeanor.

Kelric shifted his weight, restless and unsettled. He cycled through views of the city and countryside on his console. Then he paged his intelligence chief in the orbital defense system.

The chief's voice came over the comm. "Major Qahot here."

"Any problems?" Kelric asked.

"None, sir. Is anything wrong?"

"No. Nothing." Kelric wished he knew what bothered him.

Outside, the women in the House of Kaaj were descending the cathedral steps. Just the women: they secluded their men. In their traditional garb, they resembled ancient Ruby warriors, with leather and metal armor, curved swords at their hips, and glinting spears. In real life they ran robotics corporations, but right now they reminded Kelric of paintings he had seen of Old Age queens on Coba.

He spoke into the comm. "Qahot, let me know if you notice anything strange."

"Aye, sir." Qahot paused as voices spoke in the background. Then he said, "We had an unauthorized ship request to land about an hour ago."

Kelric tensed, afraid to hope. "Who? And why?" He had left authorization for Ixpar, but the Coban port was decades out of date. Perhaps security here hadn't recognized the codes. Perhaps Ixpar hadn't realized that. Or perhaps he was raising futile hopes within himself.

"They're tourists," Qahot said. "They didn't realize the festival is off-limits. We have them in custody, five men and six women, name of Turning. We're running checks."

"Did any of the women give her name as Ixpar Karn or ask for me?"

"No, sir," Qahot said. "Are you expecting someone?"

"No, not really." Kelric pushed down his disappointment. "Keep checking them out. Let me know if anything comes up."

"Yes, sir."

Outside, the Vibarrs were striding toward the coliseum. Their late Matriarch, an aggressive powerhouse, had broken with tradition and named her son as her heir. Now he led the House, all bankers and lawyers and wildcatters, secure in their power and wealth. The Rajindias came next, the House that provided ISC with the neurological specialists who treated psions. Despite their restraint, they were more relaxed than the hawklike Kaajs.


Insight came to Kelric like a rush of heat, as a fire might flare at a campsite. Turning. Tern. A bird, yes, but they had the wrong one, probably because of language differences. Not tern. Hawk.

He spoke into his comm. "Qahot?"

"Here, sir," the major said.

"The leader of that group you picked up—is it a woman?"

"Yes, sir."

"With red hair?"

"No, sir."

Kelric frowned. Was he wrong?

Then Qahot added, "Her hair is orange. Like copper."

Kelric exhaled, long and slow. "I want to talk to her."

* * *

When the Majdas walked the concourse, they left no doubt who dominated the noble Houses. With their black hair, high cheekbones, and great height, they embodied the quintessential Skolian aristocrat. Most of the women wore uniforms, primarily the green of the Pharaoh's Army, but also the blue of the Imperial Fleet. Vazar strode along in her Jagernaut leathers, skin-tight black with glinting silver studs.

The Majdas also secluded their princes. But the same indomitable will that infused their women manifested in the men. More than a few of their brothers and sons had defied tradition. They walked with the House now, professors, architects, scientists, artists, and military officers, tall and imposing. Naaj came last. Queen of Majda. She neither waved nor smiled. She simply walked. It was enough.

Najo stood with Kelric at the window. "Impressive."

Kelric smiled dryly. "They've raised it to an art."

Then the announcer said, "The Ruby Dynasty."

A flood of children poured out of the cathedral, Kelric's nephews and nieces, grandnephews, grandnieces, and on down the generations. They waved exuberantly at the crowd, who cheered their approval of the dynasty's beautiful progeny. Kelric intended that effect; the more his young kin charmed the public, the better. It was good public relations.

His siblings came next, first his sister Aniece, small and curved, with dark curls and gold eyes. Her husband Lord Rillia walked at her side. Kelric's brother Shannon followed, a willowy Blue Dale Archer, bow and quiver on his back. Then Denric the school teacher. Soz should have been next; since her death, they had left a gap in the Promenade, in her honor.

Havryl walked down the steps next, his bronzed hair tossing in the wind, his toddler nestled in the crook of his arm. His wife came with him, holding their baby. The twins, Del and Chaniece, would have followed, but they had stayed home, tending to family duties. Another lull came in the Promenade, in honor of Althor, who had died in the Radiance War.

A hum sounded behind Kelric. He turned to see Najo by the door.

"Sir?" Najo's gaze was a question.

Kelric's pulse surged. He nodded as if he were ready, even though he wasn't and might never be. But he had set these events in motion and he would never turn back.

Najo tapped his gauntlet and the door whisked open. A woman stood in the archway. She had piled her hair on her head and threaded it with blue beads. Her leather and bronzed clothes evoked the warriors of her ancestors, and a keen intelligence filled her gaze. Her aura of power filled the room.

Kelric walked forward. The tread of his boots on the tiles seemed to echo. He stopped in front of her, absorbing that she stood here, out of context with every memory he had of her, in a place he never expected to see her.

He spoke quietly. "Ixpar." For him, that one word, at this moment, held more meaning than he could ever sort out.

She inclined her head. "My greetings, Husband."

He indicated the window. "Will you join me?"

"It would be my honor."

He felt painfully formal. He knew her so well, yet he barely knew her at all. As they reached the window, exclamations from the crowd swelled over the monitors. The announcer said, "Roca Skolia, Foreign Affairs Councilor," as Roca descended the steps, a vision of gold in rose-hued silk that rippled around her figure.

"That's your mother?" Ixpar asked. When Kelric nodded, she said, "No wonder."

He glanced at her. "No wonder what?"

Her voice had that smoky quality again. "No wonder you were the man whose face launched a thousand windriders into battle."

Apparently she had been reading Earth classics. He crooked a smile at her. "What, it scared them that much?"

"Hardly," she murmured.

It didn't surprise him she knew about Earth; she would never have allowed Jeremiah to study Coba without first studying him and his people. Apparently she found him far less formidable than her Imperator husband. And yet she had come.

"It's not too late to change your mind," he said. He needed her to be sure she wanted this.

She spoke quietly. "I thought a long time before I boarded that ship in the port. Is this a mistake? No clear answer shows itself when I project futures with my Quis. Some patterns evolve into ruin. Others are incredible. Even beautiful." She stopped. He waited, and finally she said, "The time comes when we must take a risk. To decide our own future."

An odd silence fell over the room. Kelric hadn't realized how noisy the crowds were until they quieted. He glanced at the window—and froze.

A robed and cowled figure stood with four guards at the top of the cathedral steps. A Talha scarf wrapped around his head within the cowl, hiding his face, except for his eyes.

Kelric shot a look at Ixpar.

She answered his unspoken question. "Yes."

His emotions swelled, too jumbled to untangle. "I can't see him."

"He's never gone in public without robes," Ixpar said. "He's never even left the Calanya."

Dismay surged within him. "I would never force—"

"He wanted to come." Dryly she added, "Manager Varz was the one who balked. It took a lot to convince her."

It didn't surprise Kelric. The shock was that she had let her Calani travel at all. Apparently the current Manager was more human than the monster he had known.

The announcer hadn't spoken; he was probably reading notes that Kelric's officers had delivered to him as soon as the geneticists finished their rushed tests. Kelric had ordered the tests when Ixpar told him who had come with her. He could almost hear the question whispered among the spectators. Who is that? It had been Kelric's question as well, for twenty-eight years. Finally he would have an answer.

With firm motions, the man pushed back his hood and pulled down his Talha. Kelric barely detected the way his arm shook. He doubted anyone watching but he and Ixpar understood the significance of that action. A Hakaborn prince never showed his face to the public.

The man had dark hair and large eyes. Violet eyes. His hair was as dark as the Hakaborn, but it glinted with metallic highlights. He stood tall and strong, his head lifted. He had a strange look, though, as if he were about to step off a cliff. Kelric knew the courage it took for him to do this, he who had surely never expected to leave seclusion, let along walk before trillions on an interstellar broadcast. It was a quieter bravery than the dramatic acts of the Jagernauts that Kelric had known at that age, but that made it no less real.

The announcer said, "Jimorla Haka Varz Valdoria."

Startled voices erupted among the crowd, and Kelric released a silent exhale. To use the Valdoria name at this point in the Promenade identified Jimorla as his child, as binding a declaration as any legal document. He had hoped and believed it for so long, but he had never been sure. Jimorla wasn't a Ruby psion, so he couldn't use the Skolia name, but he was Kelric's firstborn in every other aspect and would take his place in the line of succession to the Ruby Throne.

Jimorla visibly braced his shoulders. He descended the stairs with his guards and strode along the Concourse, his robe billowing out behind him. For the first time, a Calani walked openly on another world. Coba—and Skolia—were changed forever. Quis would come to the Imperialate.




A strained voice interrupted his thoughts. "Sir," Najo said.

Kelric turned to see his bodyguard standing by the console. Lights blazed all over the station. Najo had that same expression he had worn when Kelric revealed he had spent eighteen years on Coba, the look of a man who knew he stood witness to the making of history.

"People are trying to contact you," Najo said.

"Who?" Kelric could guess: the leaders of an empire. They had just learned they had a new crown prince.

"The First Councilor of the Assembly," Najo said. "General Majda, General Bloodmark, Primary Tapperhaven, your mother, your brothers, your sister, the gene team you summoned, and several Councilors of the Inner Circle."

Kelric noticed the list didn't include Dehya. She had just discovered the existence of a prince who preceded her son in the line of succession, yet she waited. She understood Kelric in a way few others could.

"I imagine they're surprised," Kelric allowed.

Najo looked as if he considered that a monumental understatement. But he said only, "Yes, sir."

Kelric wasn't ready to talk. He wanted these moments for himself. "Tell them I'll contact them after the Promenade."

Voices surged outside, and gasps. With a start, Kelric turned back. A young woman had appeared at the top of the cathedral stairs—a girl whose skin, hair, and eyes shimmered gold.

The announcer said, "Roca Miesa Varz Valdoria—" He took a breath that everyone on thousands of worlds and habitats in three empires would hear, a sound that would become another page of history. Then he added, "Skolia."

Until that moment, Kelric hadn't been certain. By using the Skolia name, the announcer revealed the truth: his daughter was a Ruby psion. Someday she would take her place as a member of the Dyad.

She descended the steps alone, without guards, but the defenses of an empire protected her. Her true name was Rohka, the Coban version of Roca. Kelric felt as if he were sundering in two. Rohka, the wonder he and Savina had given life, had come into the world as her mother died. The hours Kelric had spent cradling his infant child in his oversized arms had been the only light in his grief-shattered life. He would be forever grateful to Ixpar for freeing him from Varz, but he had mourned, too, for the Varz Manager had retaliated by denying him his child.

Jimorla had reached the coliseum, and officers ushered him to the area reserved for the Imperator's children. He was the first person to sit there in a century. On the Concourse, Rohka's stride never faltered, though Kelric recognized the overwhelmed look she tried to hide. He had seen the same on her mother when Savina felt daunted but refused to let fear diminish her spirit.

Welcome, Kelric thought to his children. They couldn't reply; even if they had known how to interpret mental input, they were too far away. He didn't even know if his son was an empath or had the rarer telepathic traits Kelric shared with his family.

And yet . . . he felt certain a man's thought answered, distant but clear, the words in Teotecan: It is my honor.

A young woman's thought suddenly resonated in his mind, young and raw, untrained but full of power. And mine, Father.

* * *

The speaker said, simply, "Kelric Skolia, Imperator, and Ixpar Karn, Minister of Coba."

Side by side, Kelric and Ixpar descended the steps. The crowds had cheered the Houses and the Ruby Dynasty. They remained silent now, whether in shock or respect, Kelric didn't know. He had never been comfortable with public displays; he preferred to stay in the background. But he had waited ten years for this—no, twenty-eight. That was when he had first seen Ixpar, as he awoke in a sickroom on Coba with the fourteen-year-old Ministry successor leaning over him. It had taken nearly three decades to bring that moment full circle, decades that had changed his life more than he would ever have imagined.

After twenty-eight years, he had come home.

* * *

The story of Kelric's life on Coba appears in the Nebula- nominated novel, The Last Hawk. Jeremiah's story appears in the novella, "A Roll of the Dice," which won the AnLab (Analog Reader's poll), and was nominated for a Hugo and Nebula. The full-length book, The Ruby Dice, will come out in 2007 from Baen books.

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