Chapter Fourteen

Tantos III, Ducal Palace

The holo-image that hovered above the table in Duke Hiram's war room depicted a large asteroid, slowly rotating in place to allow all those gathered around it to see it from all sides. As it turned what might be thought of as its front to face Mardoban, he saw once again the open tunnel that led in and down towards what he knew to be a hidden hangar deep inside.

Beside him, he heard Hiram swear softly. "So there it is," the other duke muttered. "The pirate base. Are we sure this information is accurate?"

"As sure as we can be, my lord," the guildsman who stood across from them said rather primly. "The scanning technology we've provided the regent is functioning normally, and has produced a map of the base for us based on the data it retrieved. These devices have also been designed to send us a specific signal if they are tampered with at any point after they are put in place; as we've not received any such signal, we think it likely that they've not been discovered."

"Whatever else he may be, the Commander's not stupid," Mardoban said, "and we're not entirely certain what the capabilities of his technology may be; therefore, we consider it entirely possible that he has found a way to remove the scanners without triggering the warning signal. Therefore I am determined that we should act at once, before the pirates have the opportunity to evacuate their base."

The Duke gestured at the holographic display. "Thanks to the hidden scanners, we were able to track the pirate fleet back to their base – this asteroid in the system designated as B-1356, which is otherwise uninhabited." He tapped a button on the war table, and the hologram zoomed in to show a hangar inside the asteroid. "Here we see the bay where the pirate fleet landed – and, as we suspected, the fleet we faced is only a part of their full strength. They appear to have at least two dozen more of the modified transports, five of the larger ships such as their flagship from the previous engagement, and an unknown number of fighters. Furthermore, the base may have other hangars of which we are currently unaware." Mardoban zoomed the image out again and gestured at several outcroppings around the edge of the hangar entrance and on various points on the asteroid's surface which appeared somewhat too jagged to be natural. "It also appears that they have concealed cannon on the asteroid itself to destroy or damage incoming craft without needing to scramble their fleet. The pirates are locked up tight."

Kallistrae frowned and looked to her Duke. "As much as we want to see the pirate threat ended, my lord regent," she said, "I'm not sure if our local Tantos forces are capable of cracking a nut that tough. We mostly keep them for the policing and protection of our shipping lanes, but we're not a significant military power. We would be glad to provide you an assistance we could, but…"

"The guilds also maintain some security forces in the region," the guildsman said, "and we agree that the pirate threat has gone on for long enough. But even with our forces combined with yours, we're uncertain of our chances of victory."

Mardoban smiled. "I think it's time to remind ourselves that the Dozen Stars is a Kingdom, not simply a collection of independent systems that sometimes work together," he said. "As regent, and as the one tasked by the council with dealing with the pirates, I've sent a call to Carann and Orlanes; crown forces and part of my own militia will arrive here shortly, and we will assist you in this battle as a show of solidarity with Tantos Duchy. Assuming it's workable with you, of course."

Hiram managed to look both surprised and relieved; his expression would have almost been comical if the situation hadn't been serious. "Your aid is most appreciated, Mardoban!" he said. "I'm not so proud as to refuse to acknowledge when I need help."

"With the combination of our forces, we may well have the advantage," Kallistrae said, regarding the holo display thoughtfully. "Of course, we still don't know everything the bigger ships are capable of…"

"And there is another issue that we need to discuss," Mardoban said. "The system where the pirate base is located lies on the border between Tantos and Sakran Duchy. In other words…"

"That's Naudar's holding," Hiram said. "And he's probably not going to be very happy to have us moving such a large force near his territory."

"So, are we just going to give up because we don't want to bruise aristocratic egos?" asked the guildsman – either not noticing or, as Mardoban thought more likely, not caring about the possibility of offending the aristocratic egos already in the room with him. "That doesn't seem like a very profitable course of action to me."

"Duke Naudar is powerful, and proud," Kallistrae said. "If he notices our fleet and takes it as an insult, it could throw the Dozen Stars into civil war."

"Naudar was the one who brought the issue of the pirates before the council in the first place," Mardoban said. "He is ambitious and proud, but he's not stupid. I don't trust him to have anyone's best interest at heart but his own – but I do trust him to make what he thinks will be the most profitable decisions for his duchy. I'll talk to him. I think I should be able to work out an accord…"

/

Later that day, Mardoban stood alone in Hiram's official communications room, regarding Tantos City's foggy air from one of the large windows that lined the chamber. Finally he sighed, determined that it was time to get this over with, and turned to the large holoprojector in the center of the floor. He'd sent a message to Naudar after leaving the war room, and the other duke indicated he was willing to talk – now was the time to see if that was more than just words. Picking up a small remote, he keyed in the necessary sequence to the projector, then stepped back as an image of Naudar ast Sakran shimmered into existence above it.

Naudar was not a tall man; he was slightly overweight, though not so much as Hiram, and like Mardoban himself he was no longer young. He leaned on a shiny black cane with a golden head, courtesy of a wound he'd taken in battle as a younger man, and was not an obviously imposing figure. Still, there was something in the set of his face and especially in the intensity of his eyes that made it plain – this was someone accustomed to power, to wielding it ruthlessly and intelligently, and who wasn't someone to cross.

"Mardoban," Naudar said. "I hear you have an update on the pirate situation. I assume there's a reason that you've called me in person about it instead of summoning the full council?"

"As a matter of fact, there is," Mardoban said. "Duke Hiram's militia forces and I managed to drive off the most recent pirate raid, and we succeeded in placing trackers on some of their ships when they retreated. Assuming the information they sent us is accurate, we have the location and at least some of the layout of their base."

"Excellent," Naudar said, sounding genuinely satisfied. "With luck, we will soon see the last of that particular threat. Still, I know you well enough to assume that you didn't call me simply to brag – that's not your style. What do you want, Mardoban?"

"Primarily, to pass on a warning," Mardoban replied, silently praying that the tactic he'd chosen for this conversation would work. "The pirate base is in an uninhabited system on the edge of Tantos Duchy and Sakran Duchy. Our fleet will have to pass rather close to your territory to reach it; we wouldn't want you to panic about our presence and risk causing an incident we'd rather all avoid."

Naudar's eyes tightened at that. "My thanks for the warning, Mardoban," he said, though his tone was chilly. "However, I must admit I'm curious as to what system, exactly, the pirates have been using that's so close to my duchy. I will have to request you send me that information at once."

"Of course," Mardoban said, picking up his tablet from where he'd placed it on a nearby table and making a few quick keystrokes. He saw Naudar glance at something or someone outside of the holo's display and then nod; apparently someone on the other side had received the intel and was displaying it for the duke.

"The pirates appear well-armed and well-entrenched," Naudar said thoughtfully. "Assaulting that base is a risk – it would be a pity if your combined forces were unable to achieve their goal." Now Mardoban could see the struggle playing out behind Naudar's carefully schooled expression. On the one hand, the Duke of Sakran wanted to build his House into a dynasty that would become the new royal family of the Dozen Stars; if Mardoban's forces suffered a significant defeat, that would remove one of the primary obstacles to that ambition. On the other, Naudar genuinely feared the pirate threat and wanted them defeated and he was, in his own way, a patriot. A dynasty, after all, was nothing without a stable nation to lead. Mardoban only prayed he'd guessed correctly as to which of the man's instincts would win out.

Finally, Naudar nodded. "Yes, it would be a pity," he said. "And I don't think I like the idea of the combined forces of two duchies – three if you count the Crown – sitting so close to my door. As a Duke of the Realm and a member of the council, I request that I take part in this operation as well. Don't forget that I was the one who proposed the council task someone to deal with this threat. If you are agreeable, we shall defeat the pirates together. If not, you will stay out of Sakran Duchy."

Mardoban smiled; he'd guessed right after all. "We would, of course, be honored to have you, Duke Naudar," he said. "Both for your gracious allowing of passage through your territory, and for your forces in battle."

"And I trust you won't forget it," Naudar said, looking extremely satisfied. "I assume you will want to act quickly, before the pirates have a chance to discover your tracking devices."

"Yes; I've taken the liberty of including our preliminary battle plans with the information on the pirate base I sent," Mardoban said. "I hope you will find them suitable."

"We'll see," said Naudar. "I'll look them over and get back to you shortly." The Duke of Sakran paused for a moment, then leaned in towards Mardoban, resting both hands on his cane. "And how go certain… other matters at court? I hear Respen is still fuming over his most recent failure."

"If you mean the matter of the crown," Mardoban said, "I've been rather distracted lately with other matters. We can focus on that… object, and its implications for the succession, once the pirates are defeated."

"Of course," Naudar said. "But once the pirate threat is gone, I have some… ideas as to how to handle the situation. I would be happy to share them with you then. For now, I should take some time to review your battle plans. We'll talk again soon." Naudar tilted his head in the small bow of one equal to another and then his holo vanished, leaving Mardoban to wonder what idea, exactly, he might be referring to.

/

The Commander leaned on the railing on the platform's edge, staring out over his fleet, and drew his plans.

Once, a long time ago, he'd been an ordinary man. He'd had a name, a life, a history. But all of that was behind him now. He'd been a marine in the Imperial Legions, once, and had earned high honor and the regard of a number of prominent Senators during the wars against the Alaelam Alliance. But even the Empire had limits in the amount of brutality it was willing to tolerate, and his repeated targeting of Alaelam civilians had earned him the ire, and eventually the loathing, of his commanding officers. Killing Alaelam, they had said, was laudable; even the killing of civilians was acceptable. But he had repeatedly gone out of his way to seek targets of no strategic value upon which to sate his bloodlust, and so in the end he'd been dishonorably discharged for disobeying orders and endangering the lives of his fellow marines.

Since then, of course, he'd learned self-control; he could thank those half-forgotten superiors for setting him on that path.

But at the time, he'd slunk back into the Empire, and having few skills beyond an aptitude for violence, he'd sunk into a drunken depression. Those years were a haze now. But in the end he'd been approached by the agents of someone who had use for a man of his particular talents. He'd never seen his new patron – he thought it likely the man wasn't even Imperial – but the money was good, as were… other benefits. He'd received extensive cybernetic reconstruction, curing the damage the alcohol had done to his body and enhancing his mind and body to levels well beyond what mere training could achieve. He'd always excelled at violence, but now he was something else… something new. His patron had given him command of a squad of people who'd been similarly enhanced, and with that command, a mission.

To kill a queen.

To kill her, and to be seen doing it. To leave no doubt that she had died at the hands of some powerful, unknown enemy. To sow chaos and strife in the kingdom she ruled. It was weak, he'd been told, and all he needed to do was make the final push that would cause it to fall. He didn't know why, but his patron was very clear on that point – the Kingdom of the Dozen Stars had to die.

The Commander had done as he'd been told, but the Dozen Stars had, unfortunately, proven rather more resilient than his patron had anticipated. It was shaken, weakened, but it had limped on nonetheless. And so, after years of lying low on the fringes of civilized space, his patron had given the Commander and his crew another task. Take the money he gave them, use it to build a pirate armada, and then use that armada to complete the task of sowing chaos until the Dozen Stars fell. Whether he conquered it or it turned on itself was immaterial, so far as his patron was concerned. The Kingdom merely had to perish.

And even with the most recent setback, things were proceeding well. The Dozen Stars was already on the verge of a succession crisis, if the word out of Carann was to be believed; the Commander almost thanked whoever had planted that crown, for giving them all a reason to fight. All he had to do was keep them off balance, and he was certain the Kingdom would fall into civil war within a year.

That was the problem with spreading out the power too much; everyone came to believe they had the right to rule. The Empire had learned to guard against that problem long ago; the Commander no longer truly thought of himself as an Imperial citizen, but he'd taken the lesson to heart himself.

The sound of footsteps echoed behind him, and he straightened slowly, turning to face the newcomer. He knew he was an imposing sight – a tall, powerfully built man who, thanks to his cybernetics, would never run to fat. His armor added to the effect, of course, as did the dueling sword and beam pistol he wore at his side, but it was his face that truly completed the image. Like his trusted subordinates, he wore a blank black mask that covered all of his face, leaving it entirely featureless and unreadable. Though it had no eyes, still he could see, for the entire mask fed visual information directly into his brain. It granted him sight far superior to that of any normal human.

The one who approached was one of his inner circle and was similar in appearance, save that she was shorter and slighter, and had a figure that was just barely recognizable as female under her armor. Like the Commander, she'd had a name once, before she'd been drummed from the Legions for murdering a fellow marine over a card game; the Commander merely thought of her as Two, and considered her to be his most reliable lieutenant.

As she approached, Two saluted with her fist over her hear, Imperial-style. "Commander," she said, her voice faintly buzzing from under her mask. "Four has returned from Tantos Station and as you requested, he has come to report to you."

The Commander inclined his head. "Of course," he said. "Send him in."

Two stepped aside and Four walked up beside her, still bearing the scars of the battle he'd waged against the regent; his cybernetics showed along his arm and on the back of his head. He too saluted as he approached, though his gesture was far more hesitant. The Commander nodded; good. He understood that he'd failed.

"Commander," Four said, "I regret being unable to return to you sooner, but the Tantos duke increased his security measures and it took me some time to evade them."

"Do not waste my time with excuses," the Commander said. "We both know that your failure to remove the regent on Tantos Station led to his forces ambushing and defeating us on the edge of the system. Do you have any explanation for your actions?"

The Commander dropped a hand to stroke the hilt of his dueling sword, and he imagined that Four's face – what was left of it – had gone pale under his mask. The assassin went down on one knee. "I have none, Commander," he said, "save for this – I underestimate the regent and his bodyguard. I had not anticipated how formidable they would prove, and as a result, I wasn't a careful as I should have been. You may take my life, if you wish, in payment for my failure."

The Commander walked forward and ran his gloved hand along the back of Four's neck, then around his throat and rested his fingers along the base of his chin. "I think not," he said. "You have accepted your failure and admitted your mistake, and I don't have the resources to easily afford the loss of one of my elite. You will continue to serve, and you will learn from your mistakes." His hidden eyes narrowed. "But if you should fail to learn, then you will be punished – and I will have no mercy for you. Do you understand?"

"I do!" Four said, relief evident in his voice. The Commander nodded and stepped back, letting him rise. Slowly he turned back to the hangar, looking down at the floor where his fleet rested. The captured and converted freighters proved the bulk of it, of course, but his larger dreadnaughts – those where his pride, gifts from his patron. Their technology was experimental, like that of his cybernetics, and he'd been promised that it was untraceable. Even he didn't know its origin.

Suddenly he frowned, something tingling on the edge of his awareness, a mechanical almost-sound he couldn't shake. Spinning on his heel, the Commander strode to the far edge of his platform and stepped onto the lift, Two and Four taking up their positions beside him; slowly, they were lowered to the immense chamber's floor. The Commander stalked forward, his two lieutenants following close behind, and around the hangar his men – ordinary pirates and mercenaries, a motley collection of men and women who cared more for profit than patriotism he'd gathered over the years – but he ignored them. His enhanced senses could detect some forms of signal, though only if he was near the source, and now he was trying to pinpoint the exact location.

It took him time, winding his way through the hangar, pausing beside every ship and its nervous crew, before finally he reached one of the stolen transports. Ducking his head, he walked underneath the docking cradle where it was perched and ran his hands carefully along the bottom, following the signal as it strengthened until at last he found a small nub that wasn't part of the ship's design. A shock of energy from his hand deadened the device, and then with a sharp twist he pulled it free.

Stepping out from under the docking cradle, the Commander turned to the head of a nearby maintenance crew and held up his prize. "What," he asked slowly, "is this?"

"I… I don't know, Commander," the man said, blanching. "I've never seen a device quite like it before."

"It's a homing beacon," the Commander hissed, "that appears to be of guild design. It was giving off a frequency on a wavelength that your scanners were unable to detect – but mine are more sensitive. If this beacon was made by the guild, then no doubt Duke Hiram now knows where we are. And if he knows, then so does the regent. They are coming." A sudden rage seized the Commander, and he slammed the crew leader against the frame of the docking cradle and let him slide, unconscious, to the ground. Slowly, carefully, as he'd learned to do long ago, he mastered his rage. Violence might be satisfying, but it wouldn't serve him now.

"Your orders, Commander?" Two asked, ever efficient.

"Begin preparations," the Commander told her. "The time has come to revise our plans."