Prologue

Realm Year 472

The Planet Carann, Capital of the Kingdom of the Dozen Stars, Royal Palace

The Queen was dead.

The Duke of Orlanes leaned heavily against the nearest council chair, breathing heavily as he struggled to make sense of the scene before him. The walls were scorched with laser fire, and the acrid stink the beam rifles left when they were used still hung in the air, along with a few remaining wisps of smoke. A number of the council chairs lay overturned, either by the assassins or by nobles fleeing the violence; a few of the display screens on their arms were still flashing frantically with warning messages.

Then there were the bodies. Most were assassins, black-clad and black masked, still clutching their beam rifles in their final grip; mixed in between them were a Her Majesty's royal guards, their bright blue-and-gold uniforms and plumed helms making them strikingly obvious among their foes. Closer to the throne lay the bodies of three of the Queen's knights, their armor still smoldering, and their swords fallen from their hands where they fell defending their liege.

And on the dais, itself…

The dais stood at the head of the chamber, which curved inward to place it at the apex with the councilor's chairs facing it in a ring and the balconies from which observers could watch rising in several levels above them. All was done in blue and gold, the colors of the royal house, and along the walls hung the great banners depicting the Lion of Carran, the great feline beast that was the sigil of the Queen's household. The dais itself rose several levels above the floor, and the walls behind it were designed to resemble stained glass – an archaic artform from Old Terra of which one of the Queen's ancestors had been fond – depicting scenes from the Sacred Canon and the history of the Kingdom of the Dozen Stars. The Duke knew, however, that at any time the seemingly glass windows could be transformed into screens that projected the Queen's image and voice across the chamber – just as larger screens waited hidden outside the palace for the same purpose. The throne itself was a curving, gold-framed chair on a low pedestal at the center of the dais, its peaked back rising into a pair of slender prongs decorated like the rays of a rising sun, framing the occupant's head as if in a halo of light.

She who should be that occupant now lay at the throne's base, her body already covered by a thin white cloth. The Duke felt his heart wrench at the sight, for a part of him couldn't bear to see her like this, which seemed the final proof that she was dead – and another part was quietly relieved that whatever wounds had killed her were hidden. The Queen had been a great knight, in her time; he doubted that she had gone to her death quietly. A pair of floating servitor mechs hovered over the body, their long-fingered metal hands running along it as they scanned for any further evidence of the origins of the weapons that had killed her – and prepared to take the body away, to prepare it for final rites. Around the edges of the chamber other mechs of similar design were examining other bodies, or preparing to clear damage from the room. Their mechanical faces with glowing blue eyes were, as ever, unreadable.

"My Lord Duke Mardoban," a voice said from behind him; the Duke straightened himself and turned to the man who had spoken, a young officer of the Queen's guard with his beam rifle slung over one shoulder. The look of horror on his face was surely the match of the Duke's own.

"I got here as soon as I heard the news, Lieutenant," the Duke said to him, taking in his rank insignia at a glance. "Were you the one who summoned me? Good. What the hell happened here?"

"We're still trying to figure that out, my lord," the lieutenant said – Lord, he looked young. "The council meeting was just barely in session when the assassins appeared in the balconies. We still don't know how they got in; their suits had some sort of stealth tech that only went down when they opened fire. They aimed for the guards first, then the knights, but not the councilors; they weren't interested in anyone who didn't look like they were going to fight back." He drew a deep breath, the continued. "We tried to get the Queen out, but Her Majesty didn't want to run when her people were in danger. It didn't matter anyway; they were too fast. After dealing with the knights, they turned on Her Majesty; several of them fired their beam rifles together, and the collective force was enough to cut through her personal shields." The lieutenant swallowed, loudly. "I am the highest-ranking officer present who survived, and I will be filing my resignation as soon as I'm able, for failing."

Duke Mardoban waved a hand. "Don't be daft," he said. "You did what you could. Any idea who did this?"

The lieutenant shook his head. "None yet. The mechs scanned the weapons and suits the assassins had, but don't recognize the technology. We caught a few of them alive, but they had some sort of mechanical implants that activated when we tried to question them. They… didn't survive."

"Damn," the Duke muttered, shaking his head. "Of all the times I'm not present at a council meeting, and this happens." He turned back to the lieutenant. "I need a moment to collect myself. I'll return presently; let me know if you find anything new."

"Yes, my lord," the lieutenant said, saluting. The Duke returned it quickly and then strode from the council chamber, out into the large, vaulted entry hall. He passed several more guards, who saluted as he passed, and several nobles and councilors who approached him angrily, demanding an explanation; he forestalled them with a raised hand and finally reached the far end of the entry hall, where there was no one remaining nearby.

"But who…" he muttered under his breath, shaking his head again at the final mystery tying all this together. The Empire? No, they were busy with wars of their own, and he doubted they had the time or the inclination to waste resources attacking a small, remote nation that was – strictly speaking – their ally. He'd question Quarinis later, of course, but doubted he'd get anything from the ambassador but the platitudes and insincere sorrows. Was the threat closer to home, then? There were certainly those, among the Dukes and Barons of the dozen stars, who had made no secret of the fact that they desired the throne for themselves. Naudar, perhaps, or Respen or Sateira – any of them seemed the type, though where they god the technology was another question, the worlds they ruled were not so rich as that…

"My Lord Duke," a quiet voice said from beside him, though Mardoban was certain he hadn't heard any footsteps. "We need to talk."

"You," the Duke said, turning sharply towards the speaker with a hand on the hilt of his sword. "Where were you during all of this? Why weren't you at her side?"

"I was distracted by other matters," the other man said; he was tall and thin, with dark skin and a neatly trimmed white beard; he wore his customary plain, dark coat, but the pleasant smile that usually adorned his face wasn't there. "Whoever planned the assassination was very clever; they kept you distracted with bureaucracy and me with… well, you can imagine, and then went straight for their primary target."

"I don't suppose you know any more than we do?" Mardoban asked, but the other man merely shook his head.

"In this, I don't," he said. He turned and began to walk towards one of the small doors lining the entrance hall and gestured for the Duke to follow; they emerged onto a balcony beneath Carran's violet sky, the gleaming silver spires of the capital city spread out beneath them; the air thrummed with the sound of countless skycars in the airlanes above it, though of course none was allowed to come too close to the palace without authorization. Word hadn't gone out yet about the assassination, but it would soon. Mardoban didn't envy the police who would be on duty tonight.

"As grievous a loss as Her Majesty is to the Stars – and to us all – there is one matter no one seems to have mentioned yet," the Duke's companion said. "I'm referring, of course, to the succession."

"Oh, I think whoever was behind this had that very much in mind," Mardoban muttered angrily. "After all, the Queen had no heir. What better way to throw the Dozen Stars into chaos than to kill her, and leave the rest of us squabbling over the remains." No heir… well, there was the one, but the princess had renounced her claim to the throne when she took her vows and joined the holy sisterhood, but even before that, there'd been… rumors about her, of the less than savory kind. The Duke knew the girl, and privately thought at least some of those rumors were true.

"Yes indeed," his companion said, sighing and stroking his beard. "As I said, whoever arranged this was clever. They hid their trail, but their goal was obvious. As you said… chaos." He turned to look at the Duke. "The Kingdom will need you, old friend. Try to keep everything from falling apart, until…"

"Until what?" Mardoban demanded, though he doubted he'd get a straight answer from the man – one almost never did, after all. His companion merely shrugged.

"I've made preparations," he said. "And I have to go and make more. I wish I could tell you about them, but the fewer who know this, the better. Someone went to very great lengths to kill our Queen; I don't doubt they'll do it again if they feel the need. Just keep the Stars together, and watch, and wait. That's all I promise you."

"Watch and wait… watch and wait for what, damn you?" The Duke spun on his companion, ready to physically shake answers out of the man if he had to – but it was too late. He was standing alone on an otherwise empty balcony.

The Duke stood there, watching the sky deepen and the stars appear, grieving for the monarch he had served and pondering his companion's words, for a very long time.