The Pearl - Chapter 14

"I’m sorry that your little friend has run off and left you Gianna, but I have more important things to think about right now," said Emperor Taran, frowning at his wife. "I’m not surprised, though; she struck me as an opportunist. I doubt she was even a full-blood Sorarainian - she certainly avoided meeting Holl."

The Emperor's image faded from the ComTerm screen in front of Gianna. She sat frowning for a few moments, then summoned her handmaiden by pressing a stud on her wristcom.

"Marceen," she instructed when the girl glided silently into the room. "I will be traveling to the Citadel as soon as I can have the necessary arrangements made. You can start packing my things."

"Yes, Empress. Have you informed the Emperor of the incident, then?"

"I told him what he needed to know - no more, no less - that my companion M'Light had suddenly left. He does not need to know of the other matters, at least not until my security advisors have completed their investigation. However, that is not why I'm going; my husband is up to something and I want to be where I can keep an eye on him."

Gianna did not yet trust Marceen as she had Yoom. Poor loyal Yoom, who had always been most adept at finding out things on the occasions when the Empress visited the Citadel. Yoom had been found dead in Gianna's bedroom after M'Light had fled. There was not a mark on the body and an autopsy had revealed nothing. It appeared as though her heart had just stopped.

The Empress left Marceen to begin packing and went to meet her security advisors. She found both of them waiting in the antechamber to her office. They stood up and bowed low as she entered.

"Davad, Kenne, please come in and make yourself comfortable." Gianna walked through to her office and the men followed her at a respectful distance. She waved them towards two armchairs then settled onto a richly upholstered divan, kicking her shoes off and tucking her feet up under her gown. "Well, gentlemen, what have you concluded?"

The older of the two, Davad Mardus, cleared his throat. "Empress, we are faced with two possible scenarios to explain the events surrounding M'Light's departure."

"And they are?"

Mardus looked at his comrade. "My Lady," said Kenne Roan, "The first scenario is quite alarming and requires us to believe that at least one hundred enemy troops infiltrated our best defences and made off with your guest. In doing so, they succeeded in killing seventy of the Royal Guard without incurring any losses themselves. Furthermore, they were able to provide enough air cover to take out a squadron of our Type IV fighters. All this without showing up on our security vids, short-range scanners or being picked up by the regular Basran navy patrols in orbit."

"I take it that this is an unlikely scenario?" observed Gianna. She reached across to a table beside the divan and poured a glass of water from the crystal pitcher standing there.

"Highly unlikely, Empress," agreed Roan.

"And the second scenario?" she asked, sipping her water.

"It is actually more alarming, my Lady," said Mardus. "It suggests your guest was, in fact, a member of the Guild of Black."

"You're telling me one Assassin could do all that - without leaving any evidence except the bodies of my troops?"

"Quite easily, unfortunately," said Mardus, frowning. Roan nodded in agreement.

Gianna looked at her two advisors carefully to make sure they were serious. "I see. I do not doubt your professional judgment, gentlemen, but I got to know M'Light well - very well - during the time she was here and I find it difficult to believe she was... an Assassin. Are you sure you are not jumping to conclusions just because she was a Sorarainian like that horrible little fellow my husband keeps around?"

The two men shifted uneasily in their seats. "My Lady," said Roan, "We are aware that M'Light shared a... a special relationship with you. Nevertheless, all reasoning still leads us to believe she was an Assassin. However, we don't think she was here to harm you. It appeared from our humble observations that she held genuine affection for you. If your death had been her goal, she would not needed to have come to Basra - you would not have left Capisium alive. She was here for a reason other than that."

"It's reassuring to know you have full confidence in your security arrangements while I am off-planet, gentlemen," Gianna said dryly.

"Frankly, Empress," said Mardus, "We can only protect you if you allow yourself to be protected. Forming a relationship with every charismatic person who ingratiates themselves into you company is fraught with danger." Mardus' loyalty to Gianna was unquestionable, but he had never been a royal flunky. The Empress valued his candor as much as she relied on his considerable skills, and allowed the man his say.

"Point taken, Davad, but I will not cower away from people like my husband does in his Citadel," she replied. "Nevertheless, I will try to be more circumspect in the future."

"Speaking of the Emperor, my Lady," said Roan. "You are aware that we must regularly report to his Security Minister. What do you wish us to tell Luis Juracke? We will not be able to cover up the loss of a squadron of fighters and a barracks full of troops."

Gianna held up the glass she had in her hand. "Kenne, tell me, is this glass half empty, or half full?"

"My Lady?" asked Roan, perplexed.

Mardus sighed. His colleague was well skilled, but lacked imagination. "Only we know that the attack was the result of someone trying to get out, not in," he explained to Roan. "We will tell Juracke that we repelled an assault by a group of unidentified mercenaries - at considerable cost to the Royal Guard. We will demand to know why the Basran navy was not able to detect these intruders before they made planetfall. If it was not for our valiant defence, Juracke's incompetence could have endangered the life of our Empress."

Gianna raised her glass in salute to Mardus. "Well done, Davad. You missed your calling, you should have gone into politics." She turned to Roan. "What's more, Kenne, you can make your report in person. I'm intending to travel to the Citadel this afternoon. The last report I had from poor Yoom suggests that dear Willem is being more secretive than usual. He is working on a scheme of some sort and I mean to find out what it is about."

"But Empress," said Roan, "Is it wise to keep from the Emperor the fact that an Assassin was here? After all, it may have been part of an attempt on his life."

"Oh, I will tell him, Kenne, but when I am ready. And not before. I may be able to use it to my advantage. In the meantime, please contact the Citadel so they can make preparations for our arrival."

At that moment, half a planet away, Emperor Taran was actually preparing for the arrival of a visitor even more important than the Empress. He was in his chambers with Security Minister Juracke as well as the Foreign Affairs Minister, Braid Astreen. Taran was holding the diplomatic communiqué that Astreen had given him. The silver plate was embossed with the serrated-disk symbol of the Federation of Inner Rim Planets.

"And the Ambassador's emissary gave no indication of the reason for the visit?" the Emperor repeated.

"No, Excellency," said Astreen. "The emissary was most courteous - and apologetic for the short notice - but gave no hint as to why the esteemed Council representative sought an audience with you."

"Apologetic?" Taran stood up and began pacing behind his desk. "She's got a battle-phalanx with her; that's notice enough for the Federation. What do we know of this Ambassador Gisele Mar?"

"Her Council biography is impressive, Excellency," said Juracke "She represents Jedmon and is seen as a fairly influential figure in the Council. But most importantly, she holds proxy rights on the Inner Rim Security Committee."

"In other words," said Taran, fingering the embossed symbol on the communiqué, "She is close to the real seat of power on the Council." The Emperor spoke into his wristcom. "ARAK, status of the Federation phalanx?"

"Seven vessels are currently in planetary orbit. Types range from Ostler-class light-cruiser to heavy-battleship, class unknown but possibly Planetcrusher variant. The remaining ships are stationed approximately six planetary diameters from Basra. Latest communication from the Ambassador's vessel suggests estimated time of arrival at the Citadel for her party is midday tomorrow. A... request... has been made to maintain a clear flightpath for the Ambassador's lander. No Basran escort will be required."

"A request," echoed Taran. "As ever, the Council must maintain its veneer of civility. Mark my words, gentlemen," he said to his two Ministers, "You will live to witness the day when I will make the same... request... to enter the Hall of Truth on Nova Earth."

The two ministers looked at their Emperor with reverence, their faces showing that they believed his words implicitly. Somewhere, deep in their minds, in a part that could still be just be recognised as belonging to their original will, a spark of doubt may have lingered for a moment, but it was quickly extinguished by the conditioning Taran had enforced with the use of the Alien helmet. If ARAK harboured similar reservations, the AI kept them to itself.

"A message has just been received from the Empress Gianna, Excellency," ARAK informed him. "She sends warm regards, and is pleased to inform you that her schedule of engagements has allowed the luxury of another visit with her husband. Her entourage should arrive at the Citadel at sunset."

The Emperor grunted. "Impeccable timing, as ever, Gianna. However, in this case, it may not not hurt for the Emperor and Empress of Basra to present a picture of blissful sovereignty to the Ambassador. Gianna does have a way of putting people like Gisele Mar at ease. ARAK, ensure that the necessary arrangements are made to receive the Empress properly. And have the guest accommodation prepared for the Ambassador. We should also arrange for another banquet tomorrow night to honour the esteemed Council representative."

He nodded to Juracke and Astreen. '"Thank you gentlemen; that will be all." Bowing deeply, the two ministers left the room. "ARAK," Taran ordered, when the door closed behind the men. "Ask Holl to pay me a visit."

"Affirmative, Emperor. He is currently meditating on the rooftop garden. I will extend your invitation to him."

While the Emperor was waiting for the Sorarainian to arrive, he returned to his desk, took the Alien book from one of the drawers and placed it on the inset rik-leather desktop. He opened the book where he had marked the place with a piece of gold ribbon and began perusing the text. Taran knew the words off by heart now - even recognising the delicate patterns within patterns of syntax and structure - yet still their true meaning continued to elude him. As he recited the words softly, he felt the now-familiar awareness begin to form in his mind. It had grown much stronger this last season, as if the source had come closer to him.

"The helmet," he thought, "The helmet must be the key." But still he was afraid of using it on himself, well remembering the effect it had had on the captured Shutaka Priest and warrior. He was convinced now that the Shutaka had been able to master the unseen power and this had been the basis of their apparent invincibility. He was beginning to see that it had been a mistake to strip Willa; if the Shutaka had been using devices such as the Alien helmet, they were gone now, boiled off into space with everything else on the surface of the planet.

"Excellency, " announced ARAK. "Master Holl has arrived."

"Show him in, ARAK."

The Sorarainian assassin entered, carrying a Lanx-Lilly that he had picked from the rooftop garden. He inclined his head in greeting. "Good morning, Excellency. I was admiring your gardens; they are a credit to you."

Taran waved his hand dismissively. "Thank you, although it is all ARAK's doing. I don't know why I indulge it, but its horticultural interest seems harmless enough." Taran stood up and walked around the desk to meet Holl. The Emperor directed his guest to one of the armchairs and sat in one himself. "It seems," Taran said, "That you won't have the opportunity of meeting the Empress' Sorarainian friend after all; it seems Professor M'Light has had to leave Basra at short notice."

"A great pity, Excellency. I was looking forward to it; I meet so very few of my kin outside of the Guild."

"Never mind," said the Emperor. "If it is any consolation, it seems we are going to be honoured with a visit from no less than a Federation Council member: Ambassador Gisele Mar. You will get a chance to catch up on Inner Rim gossip, at the very least."

"Indeed, Excellency. Gisele Mar? An interesting name, given that a Doran Mar has rendered such valuable service to your Excellency recently."

"You think they are related?" asked Taran. He had almost forgotten the mercenary that Holl mentioned. Such matters were of no importance now.

"Perhaps," said Holl. "I know insufficient about the planet Jedmon to gauge whether or not this is a common family name. It may, of course, be mere coincidence."

The Emperor merely grunted and walked towards the wall of the room. ARAK, reading the mood of his master, opened the armoured shutters protecting the clearsteel windows and a panoramic view of Basra was revealed as they slid up. Taran stood looking out over New Closak, his hands clasped behind his back. Finally, he turned back to the Sorarainian.

"Well, perhaps we shall find out tomorrow, when the Ambassador arrives," he said.

Holl remained silent. If Taran insisted in playing with fire, there was a chance he would be burnt. It was unlikely that an action such as destroying the Shutaka would fail to draw the interest of the Council. They would at least be curious about who could achieve something that OREF could not.

"There will be a banquet tomorrow evening in honour of the Ambassador," continued Taran. "You are, of course, invited to attend."

"You are most gracious, Emperor. I shall look forward to it. Now if you will excuse me, I have some Guild business to which I must attend; there are a number of messages from my colleagues I must answer."

"Certainly, Holl. I am aware that you are here of your own accord and that our original contract has already been fulfilled. I am grateful that you continue to provide me with your valuable insights."

The Sorarainian bowed. "Not at all Emperor. I confess my weakness is being unable to walk away from untidy endings. There are nuances here that I do not fully comprehend, and this irks me professionally. It is I who is grateful to you for continuing to extend your generous hospitality." With that, Holl walked from the room, leaving Taran to his thoughts.

The Emperor slept badly that night which, for once, had little to do with the side effects of Hexeldrafaline. The Empress Gianna had arrived at sunset with news of an attack on the Cliff Palace by a group of offworld mercenaries. There had been significant casualties among the Royal Guard assigned to protect the Empress and little evidence had come to light to identify the attackers. Taran's spy, Yoom, had been among those killed.

Juracke had been at a loss to explain how the mercenaries had been able to slip past the naval orbital defences twice - once on the way in and again when they escaped. If they could reach the Empress in her Cliff palace, then it was unlikely that Taran would be safe in the Winter Palace. How safe, for that matter, was the Citadel itself?

Taran rose at dawn the next morning and summoned his valet to assist him with his daily routine. While ARAK provided him with a detailed update of the status of the Citadel, the Emperor had a light breakfast, then bathed and dressed. He spent the morning alone in his study, running through the Alien mind exercises and looking though his copious personal notes. Just before midday, his work was interrupted by ARAK.

"Excellency, Ambassador Mar's lander is approaching the Citadel," the AI announced.

"Fine. Is everything ready?"

"Affirmative. Both the Foreign Affairs Minister and the Security Minister report that all the necessary arrangements have been made. As requested, the Ambassador's lander has been granted a priority flightpath to the Citadel. Minister Astreen is waiting in the shuttle hanger to welcome the Ambassador on your behalf and conduct her to the throne room.

"Good. Have Paale come in and help me on with my robes."

"Yes, Excellency," replied ARAK.

A short time later, Taran's elderly manservant entered unobtrusively through a side door, carrying the Emperor's ceremonial garb. He helped Taran on with the heavy robes and carefully adjusted the Great Seal of Basran hanging around his Emperor's neck. Taran studied his image in a full length wall mirror hanging on the wall, then dismissed Paale and crossed to where a concealed door slid open to reveal the lift that would take him down to the throne room.

Although Taran had been in the throne room many times before, he rarely stepped into the chamber without feeling a sense of awe, such was the skill of the architect Taran's Grandfather had employed to design it. The room was vast, occupying the entire fifth level of the Citadel - five being the number that Basrans associated with authority and strength. Glittering chandeliers hung from the vaulted ceiling, casting a subdued light over the richly coloured walls. A large gold trimmed dais situated towards one end of the chamber held the jewel-encrusted throne itself. Basran custom recognised the presence of only one ruler at a time, so there was no throne for Gianna. The dais was flanked on both sides by tiers of heavily upholstered chairs usually occupied by the Court officials. The external wall behind the dais was constructed from thick clearsteel and revealed, when the armoured shutters retracted, a panoramic view of the city of New Closak.

The Emperor's lift delivered him to a small antechamber behind the throne. His Protocol Secretaries were waiting for him and they escorted him to the throne itself. As Taran seated himself, ARAK retracted the wall shutters behind him and the afternoon sun spilled into the room. The Emperor waited just long enough to make it clear he was not being hurried, but no so long as to be possibly interpreted as offering insult to the Ambassador. He nodded to the Captain of the Royal Guard, who give the signal to open the throne room doors. The massive kraken-wood doors swung open slowly to reveal Ambassador Mar and her small entourage being led in by Minister Astreen.

At first, Taran was taken aback by the apparent youth of the Ambassador until he remembered that bioregeneration was a favourite pastime of the Inner Rim. He knew that his own body would age to the point where he would need to undergo the process, but he still had the vague distrust of body-sculpting that most of the Outer Rim shared.

The Ambassador walked with a casual confidence, however, that was due to more than her youthful body. Taran was well aware of the power this woman had at her command as proxy to the Security Committee. To the right of the Ambassador walked a well-built man, dressed as a civilian, but with the unmistakable carriage of a military person. The other fellow with Ambassador Mar was regular FedFleet, of reasonable rank judging by the amount of braid and badges adorning his uniform. The Ambassador's party halted in front of the dais and, before Astreen could launch into long-winded introductions, Gisele spoke out in a clear, authoritative voice.

"Greetings, Emperor. I am Gisele Mar, representing the Council. May I introduce my Secretary, Shimar Elfin," she said, indicating the muscular man on her right. "And this," she added, waving her hand at the uniformed man on her right, "is Commander Auge Johane, the delegate of High-Admiral Crando. Admiral Crando sends her compliments, but she is required to remain aboard her flagship. Commander Johane will likely remain on board my lander with the pilot for the duration of my stay; I do not wish to cause you any unnecessary inconvenience."

"Straight to the point," thought Taran. "She is here for information and will tolerate only as much ceremony as it takes to get it. "Welcome to Basra, Ambassador," he said, inclining his head. "I am mortified that you find us so unprepared for your visit."

"Not at all, Emperor. I am grateful that you could accommodate me at such short notice. My stay here will not be long; a day at the most. High-Admiral Crando is keeping me to a tight schedule; she informs me our next destination is Unaran in three sleep cycles." She indicated her ship-suit. "After my party has had a chance to have some food and freshen up, I would appreciate a meeting with you in your chambers later this afternoon."

"My dear Ambassador, I am dismayed that your schedule will only allow such a brief visit. Basra has many delights that I would be overjoyed to show you if there were more time. However, I realise that Council matters must come first and I sense an urgency in your mission to the Outer Rim. Minister Astreen will see that all your needs are met regarding food and rest. I will be at your disposal all afternoon. I would, however, place one demand on you; we have arranged a banquet in your honour this evening and my wife, Empress Gianna, would never forgive me if I did not extract a promise from you to attend."

Gisele smiled. "Emperor, I'm glad we share a respect for the desires of the Council; it is not an attitude I have universally experienced in this visit to the Outer Rim. Our meeting should not take long. And I have would not dream of disappointing the Empress. In fact I am looking forward to meeting her; I believe she and I have a mutual acquaintance in Ambassador Phile of Hastran."

"Excellent," said Taran. "In that case I will leave you in the capable hands of Minister Astreen." The Emperor looked at his Foreign Affairs Minister. "Braid, please ensure that Ambassador Mar has everything she needs. And have ARAK inform me when the Ambassador is ready for our meeting."

"Yes, Excellency." The Minister turned to Gisele. "Ambassador, allow me to escort you to your rooms. Your baggage should already have been transferred there from the shuttle. He started to guide them to the door. "Our kitchens should be able to provide you with just about any food you wish, although I would like to tempt you with some of our local dishes. I would recommend some grilled Yellow Diver, one of our more rare deep-river fish. It is excellent for a late lunch such as this."

Taran watched them leave, then rose and returned to his chambers. His manservant was waiting for him and helped the Emperor remove his robes. The Emperor discussed at length what clothes he would be wearing for the banquet that evening and instructed his servant to check that the gown the Empress intended to wear would compliment his choice. When old Paale had disappeared once more, ARAK spoke.

"Excellency, after your earlier conversation with Holl, I took the liberty of cross-checking a possible connection between Gisele Mar and the mercenary, Doran Mar. Available records show the Ambassador as having a younger brother, Doran Jel Mar, who was a Junior Lieutenant-Commander in OREF until he resigned his commission. Comparison of official OREF personnel images with those recorded of the mercenary Doran Mar while in your... custody... show a match. It would appear that the mercenary Doran Mar was the younger brother of the Ambassador."

The Emperor dropped into an armchair and stretched his legs out before him. "My, my, ARAK. Isn't life full of little coincidences? I wonder if our Gisele Mar knows that her brother is now part of a cloud of molecules orbiting somewhere around Willa." The Emperor looked thoughtful. "I may even be able to use this to my advantage at a later date; it would potentially be very embarrassing for the Ambassador if it became known among the Council that her brother was an Outer Rim mercenary leader."

"Minister Astreen advises that the Ambassador is now ready for your meeting, My Lord," said ARAK

"Very well. Tell Braid to escort her here."

"Confirmed, Excellency."

While he waited for Gisele to arrive, the Emperor summoned Paale and instructed him to bring in several bottles of wine from his personal cellar. The servant returned a short time later with a gold tray bearing two dusty bottles and some glasses. He placed the tray on a side table and expertly opened one of the bottles to allow it to breathe.

"Thank you, Paale, that will be all. Once you have checked with the Empress' staff, you can start preparing my clothes for the banquet this evening."

"Yes, My Lord," said Paale and left the room.

"Excellency, announced ARAK, Minister Astreen and the Ambassador have arrived."

"Good; tell Braid he can go now. Show the Ambassador in, ARAK."

"Yes, Excellency."

ARAK opened the door and Gisele walked into Taran's office. The Ambassador had changed from her rumpled ship-suit and was looking relaxed and refreshed in a well-tailored tunic. Taran stood up to greet her and shook hands warmly. He motioned for her to sit down the returned to his own seat when Gisele had done so.

"I trust that your accommodation is to your liking and that our food agrees with you?" he asked.

"Both are outstanding, Emperor. Your chef's are to be congratulated."

"Thank you; I will see to it personally that your compliments are forwarded to the royal kitchen. They seldom have the opportunity to cook for truly refined tastes. May I now offer you some wine, perhaps. It is from my personal cellar, of course."

Gisele accepted the offered glass and sipped the rich red liquid appreciatively. "That is quite magnificent, Emperor."

"I thank you; it is several generations old and is one of my own favourites. Now, Ambassador, I hope I am going to be enlightened as to the purpose of your visit - not that a representative of the Council is ever unwelcome on Basra."

"Thank you Emperor. It has been many seasons since I last visited the Outer Rim and I had forgotten how beautiful some of the planets are - Basra is no exception. However, the Council has not sent me here for a holiday. I am here, on the directive of the Security Committee, to make an assessment before the Council makes a further decision on a matter of significant importance. Call it a general fact-finding mission, if you will. A number of reports have reached the Council of strong alliances forming between groupings of Outer Rim planets. While the Council accepts this - even welcomes it - they are seeking to assure themselves that these developments do, in fact, reflect a maturing of the political abilities of the Outer Rim leaders."

"And not the beginnings of another Outer Rim uprising," concluded Taran.

"The Council prefers to be more charitable," said Gisele. "They hope that these events signal a new beginning in the relationship between the Inner Rim and Outer Rim."

"Is the Council considering, perhaps, that there may be some possibility of the Outer Rim becoming self governing?" asked Taran.

"It is the desire of the Council," replied Gisele, carefully choosing her words, "That order continue to be maintained in the Outer Rim by OREF. It is OREF's charter to ensure that all those Outer Rim planets loyal to the Inner Rim be allowed to express that loyalty freely without feeling threatened by any of their neighbours."

"With the greatest of respect, Ambassador, it would seem that OREF has been less than successful in carrying out the desires of the Council."

Gisele rolled the stem of her wineglass through her fingers. "Emperor, the Federation has been quite patient with the Outer Rim to date. However, there is a limit to that patience. Recalcitrant Outer Rim planets should not assess the capabilities of the Council by what OREF has achieved so far; they have been operating within specific limitations imposed upon them by the Council. If the Council decides that a stronger military presence is necessary, they will act accordingly."

"I gathered as much," said Taran. "One cannot but help notice the battle-phalanx accompanying you. If your intention was to impress the locals, then let me assure you that you have succeeded."

"Emperor, let us be frank. Where does Basra stand regarding the Federation's dominion over the Outer Rim?"

"Ambassador, I am a practical man. I have spent my entire life increasing the might and power of Basra. If this can best be preserved by being a loyal supporter of the Federation, then that is the direction I will take."

"And if the Outer Rim wins their independence?"

"From what you have already said, it would seem that is not something the Council considers remotely possible, Ambassador?"

Gisele nodded. "The Council assumes that, eventually, OREF will succeed in bringing Federation order to the Outer Rim," she replied, adding to herself: "But their assumptions have been wrong before."

'While we are being frank, Ambassador," said Taran. "I would have to agree with the Council; I think eventually, by sheer weight of numbers and persistence, OREF will subdue the mercenary fleets and bring the recalcitrant planets into line."

"Especially," said Gisele, watching the Emperor closely, "Now that the mercenaries have been dealt a severe blow with the destruction of the Shutaka."

"Ah yes, the Shutaka," said Taran smoothly. "No doubt OREF will be breathing a sigh of relief at their demise. From what I hear, the entire planet of Willa was stripped of its atmosphere. My Defence Minister assures me that it would have been quite a feat. At first I though it was the handiwork of OREF, but your words a moment ago confirm my understanding that the Council keeps them on a much shorter leash nowadays - after the Hellbringer incident." Taran took a sip of his wine. "One would suppose, however, that the Federation would still have to chastise those responsible for Willa - after all, you can't have the Outer Rim taking things into their own hands in such a barbaric manner, could you?"

Gisele knew that Taran was no fool. He would realise that the Council would be rattled by the destruction of the Shutaka. The question was, did the Emperor know more than he was telling her?

"The Security Committee is certainly keen to learn the complete details of the attack on Willa," she said. "But I am certain that they will be understanding - very understanding - of any circumstances surrounding the affair. The Council has learnt to be less judgmental after the Hellbringers were unleashed by OREF."

"I must admit am surprised by your candor, Ambassador."

"Diplomacy has many forms, Emperor. I do not know how much time I have. My belief is that whoever destroyed Willa is playing for very high stakes. If they will risk taking on the Shutaka, there is no telling what else they will do to achieve their ends."

"I would have thought, naturally, that it was one of the other mercenary groups that attacked Willa. Apart from the Federation, they would have most to gain from the absence of the Shutaka, surely?"

"You have not had much experience with the mercenary groups, then?"

"Basra has always relied on our own resources for defence, Ambassador. And we have always tried to be an unattractive target for invasion."

"An interesting strategy for a world with you history, Emperor," said Gisele, remembering the detailed background briefing Shimar had given her before they boosted down. She could not resist baiting the smug Taran just a bit.

The Emperor smiled generously. "Ambassador, our past is part of our heritage; I'm sure even Jedmon was not always the haven of peace it is today. Every world has ancestors with blood on their hands, but we cannot live in the past."

"Quite so, Emperor," said Gisele. She returned to her previous point. "But I doubt if any mercenary group was responsible for Willa; they're happy to hack away at each other if they are getting paid for it, but they rarely fight among themselves just for the exercise."

"Then I am at a loss to offer an alternative," said Taran. "I do not know of any of the Outer Rim planets that would gain anything significant from the demise of the Shutaka. Basra has no interest in the Shutaka, but it seems their day of reckoning had come early. I'm sure that most of my neigbours would consider the mercenary groups a necessary tool at the moment. However, none would expect this necessity to last forever. Unlike perhaps the Guild of Black - which even the Council has occasional cause to still use - the mercenaries will eventually fade away. I know of few Outer Rim rulers who will particularly mourn the passing of the Shutaka. There are still plenty of other groups to choose from. You say OREF had nothing to do with Willa and you believe it unlikely that it was another mercenary group trying to settle an old score. You seem to have run out of options."

"Your response has been little different from that of the fifty planets I have visited so far. For an event of such impressive execution, it seems to have caused remarkably little interest among the governments of the Outer Rim." Gisele placed her empty glass on the table. "Emperor, are you familiar with the term 'gunboat diplomacy'?"

"An ancient expression, but I believe I understand the meaning."

"Good. Now, at the risk of sounding impolite, let me make it clear to you, as I have made it clear to the other Outer Rim governments I have visited. I will not be returning to Nova Earth until I have got to the bottom of what has been happening in this sector of the Outer Rim. And while I remain, so will my battle-phalanx. If you find the presence of OREF inconvenient at times, you will not be happy with how High-Admiral Crando likes to conduct her operations. The sooner I get the information I want, the sooner the Outer Rim can get back to normal."

"Ambassador, I appreciate the position you are in and your need to make your point. There is nothing I would like more than to be able to assist you in the successful completion of your mission and your return to the Inner Rim. If I discover anything that may be of use to you, you have my personal guarantee that you shall know of it at the earliest opportunity. And let me assure you, I welcome the presence of FedFleet in our sector; Basra has nothing to hide."

"I am pleased to hear that, Emperor. And if the reported sightings of Alien ships turn out to be true, you may indeed welcome the presence of FedFleet."

"Aliens?" asked Taran. He forced his voice to sound calm, but not too calm. He realised the Ambassador has mentioned the Aliens specifically to gauge his reaction. "I must confess, Ambassador, you have taken me by surprise. I have not heard of this. My Security Advisors have been some what derelict in their duties it would seem."

Gisele studied the Emperor for a few moments. Taran may have considered himself clever, but he would not have lasted a season in the Machiavellian world of the Council. The Emperor knew far more about Willa and the Aliens than he was admitting. Gisele needed to tell Taran enough to unsettle him in the hope he would stumble, but not enough for him to realise she suspected Basra of anything. In her position with the Security Committee, Gisele had dealt with enough dictators and despots to understand how dangerous they got when cornered. She sensed Taran was a man on the edge and she did not yet want to do anything to push him over.

Gisele held up her hand to the Emperor to display a the ring on her left index finger. It was a simple ring of green-blue metal, unadorned with gems or other embellishments. As she held it up to the light, it seemed to change colours until it looked almost black. "This ring," she said, "was a gift from my father when I graduated from my university studies on Jedmon many seasons ago. It is fashioned out of a scrap of Alien machinery he found on his travels as a young man. He wore it himself for many years and, as a young girl, I had been fascinated by it. At university, I majored in Alien Studies, learning everything I could about what humans knew of them. After graduation, I traveled the known worlds, seeking out more information about the Aliens. While my search was not fruitful, I gained much knowledge about humans that would be put to use when I became an Ambassador."

Gisele saw that Taran was fascinated by the ring. It was all he could do to restrain himself from grabbing her hand to look more closely at it. "No doubt the Security Committee's knowledge of my interest in the Aliens was a large factor in sending me to the Outer Rim on this occasion," she continued. "That is another reason why I will be remaining in this sector until I have satisfied myself as to the accuracy of these reported sightings."

Taran blinked rapidly, as if coming out of a trance, and looked away from Gisele's hand. "Do you believe there is a link between the Shutaka and the Aliens?" he asked her, his throat suddenly dry. The sight of the ring of Alien metal on Gisele's finger had disturbed Taran. Images came unbidden into his mind of the death of Willa and he had to force himself to concentrate on the Ambassador's reply.

"I will reserve my opinion until I have a better understanding of events," Gisele said evenly. "As is often the case, I believe things are rarely as they seem." Her instincts were telling her that in the Emperor she would find the answers the Security Committee was seeking - and perhaps even more. But she would get nothing else out of Taran on this visit. "Emperor, I thank you for this opportunity to talk. I will take no more of your time. My party will be boosting back to the fleet late tomorrow to continue our journey. Thank you for your hospitality and I look forward to the banquet tonight."

Taran looked at Gisele blankly for a moment, before smiling. "Ambassador, it has been a pleasure. I wish that the Council would send its representatives to the Outer Rim more often; I think that strategy would be sometimes be more effective than OREF. I do hope you enjoy the banquet tonight; there will be many members of my Court anticipating with great excitement the chance to talk to a Council Ambassador. Shall I have ARAK summon Braid to escort you back to your chambers?"

"I've been told your AI is a more than adequate guide. There is no need to trouble your Foreign Affairs Minister again; I'm sure he is a busy man."

"As you wish," said Taran "ARAK, please take good care of our esteemed guest."

"Yes excellency," responded the semi-sentient computer, opening the door to Taran's office. "This way if you please Ambassador. Your Secretary, Shimar Elfin, has requested that he be informed when you have finished your meeting with the Emperor. Shall I comply?"

"Thank you, ARAK," Gisele said as she walked out of Taran's office. "Inform him I will be joining him shortly."

The door closed behind her and she journeyed back to her guest quarters. ARAK discreetly guided her, ensuring the lifts moved to the appropriate floors and indicating the path she should travel by illuminating small light-panels set into the corridor floors. It answered her queries along the way accurately but with little embellishment. If there was a topic ARAK did not think appropriate to discuss with the Ambassador, it politely suggested that the question be directed to the Security Minister or the Foreign Affairs Minister.

When Gisele rejoined Shimar, she was impatient to discuss her meeting with the Emperor, but she knew that any conversation they had in the Citadel was unlikely to be private. She would have to wait until they were at least back aboard the lander before they could talk freely. Taran's banquet was not for another twenty s.u.'s so they allowed ARAK to take them on a short guided tour of the Citadel before returning to their quarters and preparing themselves for the evening celebrations.

At the scheduled time, Braid Astreen arrived to escort them through the corridors to the Grand Ballroom where the banquet was being held. As they entered the room, the band began playing the Jedmon national anthem and all eyes in the room turned towards them. As soon as the music finished playing, the guests began positioning themselves in the hope of snatching a few words of conversation with the distinguished pair.

Gisele had taken advice from Shimar and chosen a simple sheath dress to wear, cut from a lustrous cream-coloured material that draped beautifully off her youthful sculpted body. Her luxuriant hair cascaded unbound to her shoulders and her throat was encircled with a ribbon choker embroidered with the symbol of the Federation. Shimar himself cut a handsome figure beside her, dressed in a well-tailored grey tunic and breeches that accentuated his muscular body. While his outfit was devoid of insignia or decoration, its style combined with his stance of casual authority made many people think he was part of FedFleet.

Astreen showed Gisele and Shimar to their table as a fanfare heralded the arrival of the Emperor and Empress. As usual, the Royal couple looked resplendent in their extravagant clothes and the assembled guests gave a gasp of appreciation as the pair entered the huge hall. Taran and Gianna made their way slowly through the banquet room, chatting amicably with their favourites and accepting compliments from the others. When they reached the table at which Gisele and Shimar were seated, the two Inner Rim representatives stood to greet their hosts.

"Empress, may I say you look radiant," said Shimar, bowing low. "I have seen many wondrous sights in the universe, but even the crystal caves of Sandavan can not compare to your exquisite beauty tonight."

"Mr Elfin, I can see why the Ambassador favours your company," smiled the Empress. In truth, however, she felt strangely overshadowed by Gisele. There was something about the simple elegance of Gisele's dress that made the Empress feel like an uncultured schoolgirl trying to impress an adult. With just their clothing, Gisele and Shimar had conveyed an undeniable message about the confidence and sophistication of the Inner Rim.

For her part, Gisele warmed to the Empress almost immediately. She was further encouraged when she found that Shimar was similarly taken by the tall, elegant woman. Shimar was an excellent judge of character.

The Emperor caught sight of Grand Chancellor Roge Marn across the room and turned to Shimar. Mr Elfin," he said, "if you have visited the crystal caves of Sandavan you must be a hunting man."

"There are other reasons to visit Sandavan, Excellency, but I must admit I was there for the annual carth hunt."

"In that case, you must come and talk to my Grand Chancellor. Roge insists on accompanying me on all my hunting expeditions. He would enjoy swapping tales with you. Will you excuse us, ladies?"

"Of course, Emperor," said Gisele, "But I must warn you that Shimar has been known to exaggerate his hunting stories; he once tried to convince me that he had downed a Trelith in mid-flight with nothing more than a slingshot"

Shimar smiled at her. "It was an old Trelith, slow and clumsy. And I was much younger." Still smiling, he walked away with Taran to meet the Grand Chancellor. The Empress and the Ambassador resumed their seats at the table and Gianna signaled for a waiter to brings some wine.

"My husband is very fond of his hunting," the Empress remarked. "He treats it as a game. He is very fond of his games."

"So I have noticed," said Gisele. "All politicians must have that same fondness; I sometimes think that the Council is the biggest game of all."

"Then Willem would be right at home among them, although their game might still not be complex enough for him."

"The Emperor would be well advised not to play too complex a game." Gisele touched the ribbon at her throat. "Not all on the Council are senile. A battle-phalanx is not subtle, but it is effective."

"I admire your frankness, Ambassador."

Gisele glanced at the ceiling above her. "I am sure that this palace has the usual array of listening devices; frankness must by necessity have its limitations."

The Empress nodded. "Certainly ARAK monitors everything within the Citadel." She held up her wristcom. "Of course, I value my privacy too, so my custom version of this provides me with a little breathing space. Anything you say can be just between us, if you wish."

"You are very resourceful, Empress. I'm sure your your father, the Grand Archduke Heran del Griandor los Brianco, would be proud," responded Gisele.

"You have done your research well, Ambassador."

"The Royal House of Pyroc is well known to the Federation Council. Their continual petitioning for an independent Outer Rim unsettles some of the more conservative Councilors."

"I would have thought that the Federation would welcome such peaceful petitioning as a perfect example of the democratic process," observed Gianna. "Independence is a feeling that runs deep within all from Pyroc, Ambassador."

Gisele waited until one of the Royal servants, who had appeared with a bottle of wine, filled their glasses and moved onto the next table before replying. "Including you, Empress?"

"Ambassador - Gisele - I am a Basran now. I think you will find my husband takes a more pragmatic approach to these things. He seeks an outcome that is of most benefit to Basra - and himself. Incidentally, Gisele, are you one of these conservative Councilors?"

Gisele sipped her wine. "Gianna, I am first an Ambassador for Jedmon, and secondly a Council member. The prevailing wind from these does not currently favour independence for the Outer Rim. However, once my official duties are over and I have returned to Nova Earth, I would welcome a personal invitation from you to visit your father on Pyroc."

The Empress smiled warmly. "I think the Grand Archduke would like that," she said. "And so would I." She picked up her wine glass and looked at the golden liquid. "Tell me, Ambassador, what really brings you to the Outer Rim?"

"Empress, you possibly know the answer to that better than I. The Council is more than uneasy about the destruction of the planet Willa. The Outer Rim planets I have visited so far seem very tightlipped about the incident. They either know nothing, or much more than they are prepared to tell a Council Ambassador."

"I would have thought the Federation would profit by the absence of the Shutaka, whatever the reason, Gisele."

Gisele shrugged. "Be that as it may, they are also worried about who would be foolish enough to think they could obliterate the Shutaka."

The Empress looked over towards where Taran was making his way across the room. "My security advisors tell me my husband seems to have an obsession with the Shutaka. He had his staff provide him with detailed reports of the aftermath of Willa and there was even a rumour he had some Shutaka captives at the Winter Palace."

"It's odd then, that the Emperor would feign total disinterest to me on the subject of the Shutaka," said Gisele. "He also seemed totally unconcerned about the rumour of Alien contacts in the Outer Rim."

"Aliens?" Gianna looked puzzled for a moment, then a look of realization crept over her face.

"Is there something else, Gianna?" asked Gisele.

"Not really; or at least nothing that I can be sure about. My husband has been very secretive this last season - even more so than usual. My security advisors have also told me of a project that was rumoured to have something to do with Alien research. The Emperor has Doctor Monara working on it - he is head of the Antiquities Department of the Basra University."

"Doctor Bria Monara?" said Gisele, raising her eyebrows.

"Do you know of him?"

"Indeed. He has written some very good texts on Alien artifacts. I have some of them in my personal library."

'Would you like to meet him?" Gianna asked. She looked around the room. "Damn, he's talking to my husband. And he's with that detestable Holl."

Gisele followed the Empress' gaze. "Holl? Is he a Sorarainian."

"Yes. He is of the Guild of Black."

"The Guild? Empress, as a representative of the Inner Rim Security Committee I must say that is of concern to me."

"And me, Ambassador."

From across the room, the Emperor watched his wife and the Ambassador talking. He spoke into his wrist communicator. "ARAK, can you hear what they are saying?"

"No, My Lord. The Empress is wearing her blocking device."

'You could resort to more traditional methods, Your Excellency," observed Holl, wryly. "Eavesdropping, perhaps?"

"I would be happy to attempt to find out, Excellency," said Doctor Monara. "Ambassador Mar is supposed to be very knowledgeable in the field of Alien studies. I am keen to hear her opinion on my theories of Alien-Shutaka linkages."

"No, I don't think so," Taran told him. "I would rather not let the Ambassador know too much about our little project. She will be leaving for Unaran tomorrow and I would rather that she finds nothing particularly memorable about her stay on Basra."

"It is interesting that you should mention Unaran, Excellency," said Holl. "I was just about to discuss that very planet with you. I have only recently come into possession of some information that would suggest that Unaran may be of interest to us also."

"In what way, Holl?" asked Taran. "My operatives have not mentioned anything about Unaran to me."

"With respect, Emperor, the Guild has considerable resources of its own. I have drawn upon these as my position as a Seventh allows."

Something in Holl's voice made Taran's blood run cold. He should not forget what the Sorarainian was. "Of course, Holl. Of course. Again, I am indebted to you. What have you discovered?"

"It would seem that about the time the last remnants of the Shutaka disappeared, a cult suddenly appeared on Unaran."

"A cult? What sort of cult?" the Emperor asked.

"Officially it calls itself the Holy Order of the Most Worshipful Adoration of the Child-Goddess of Carth."

"An impressive name, Master Holl, but what makes you think there is a connection with the Shutaka?"

"As I said, Excellency, the Guild's resources are considerable. We have many Clients among the Inner Rim Council and even the Security Committee has not been too proud to use our services occasionally. These professional relationships can be mutually beneficial."

"You have contacts on the Federation Security Council?"

"Not quite," admitted Holl. "But close enough to suggest that an information gathering mission to Unaran is in order. It would be most useful if we could obtain some of the members of this cult to assist us with our inquiries. It is my belief that the last few Shutaka stragglers are hiding amongst this so-called church. I intend to capture one for interrogation."

"I have had little luck previously interrogatingShutaka guests, master Holl."

Holl said nothing, but his opinion of Taran's interrogation skills was clear.

Taran cleared his throat. "Yes, well at the least we could keep them as a hostage, I suppose."

"Perhaps, Excellency, but if these are Shutaka, then hostages will be of no use. That concept is meaningless to them; Shutaka cannot be blackmailed, coerced or intimidated."

"That may be so, but if these people are Shutaka, do you think anyone we send will be able to capture them anyway? I can't deploy a battalion of troops to Unaran without upsetting their government somewhat," countered the Emperor.

"Stealth and cunning will be the requirements here, my Lord. I have an apprentice - a third level - who has been coming along nicely. I believe he could benefit from this little exercise," Holl mused. "That way, we should need no more than about ten of your Special Service troops."

"Very well, Holl," said Taran. You will have what you need, but be careful."

"I know of no other way, Excellency."

Chapter 15 -->