Chapter Eighteen

Carann, Royal Palace

Mardoban found his son in the gardens, seated on a bench beneath an immense tree whose ancestors had once grown on Terra before it was lost; oak was the name, the regent thought. Pakorus was deeply engrossed in reading a book – an old-style, paper book, not text displayed on a vidscreen or a holo – that Mardoban recognized as one he'd gotten him on his last birthday. An epic from Lost Terra, one of the few that had survived the countless millennia since it had been composed. Mardoban waited quietly for a moment, then cleared his throat.

Pakorus looked up, and when he saw his father he leapt to his feet and ran to embrace him, only pulling back after a long moment, suddenly mindful of his dignity. The look of happiness and relief on his face, however, remained. "You're back!" he said excitedly. "The only news I got was from bits and pieces I could get people to tell me, and I kept worrying you wouldn't come back from fighting the pirates." He held up his book and gave an embarrassed smile. "I guess this wasn't the best choice of reading material for waiting for my father to come back from war."

Mardoban smiled. "'I sing of the storm-tossed man, who wandered far after he sacked the sacred city of Troy,'" he quoted. "Well, so far as I'm aware no angry gods have cursed me, and it'll take more than a few pirates to kill an old war engine like me." He looked Pakorus up and down. "It's good to see you, son. I hope everything's gone well for you while I've been gone?"

Pakorus shrugged. "Aside from waiting and worrying? Not much has been happening here." He paused. "I had a conversation with Ambassador Quarinis the other day. He seems to have taken a liking to me for some reason – or maybe he was just pumping me for state secrets. Unlucky for him I don't know any." He gave a self-deprecating chuckle at that.

"Ah, Quarinis is a snake, but he's honest about being a snake," Mardoban said. "I'll take that over snakes who pretend to be friendly any day. Speaking of which, I saw an old schoolmate of yours after the battle. Galen ast Sakran."

Pakorus made a face. "Not my favorite person," he muttered. "I never had much to do with his brother or sister – they were both several years above us. But Galen was in my year and he always seemed to take competing with me so personally, like he had to beat me at everything to prove his family was better than mine. Not exactly a fun person to be around; I tried to avoid him as much as I could, honestly."

Mardoban snorted. "I'm not surprised. Naudar puts all of his expectations for his house and his personal ambitions on his children – that has to be a lot of pressure for anyone."

"Where did you see him, anyway?" Pakorus asked. "I didn't think you'd made it all the way to Sakran."

"I didn't," Mardoban said. "Naudar brought Galen with him to the battle – thought it would be good for him, apparently. I don't agree, but I hope it doesn't make you feel left out."

Pakorus grinned. "Not at all," he said. "Military life isn't for me. I can barely swing a dueling sword without throwing it into the wall by mistake – something Galen never lost an opportunity to remind me of at the Academy, by the way. He was good, though. Not as good as his big brother, but good."

"Well, speaking of the ast Sakran family, I've got to make a report to the council before long," Mardoban said, sighing. "And speaking of snakes. Naudar did mention he had some sort of announcement to make. I guess I'll be finding out before long." He saw Pakorus was frowning and looked in the eye. "Sorry I have to run out on you so soon. Sometimes I hate having to be the one to run this country. Or try to, anyway."

Pakorus shook his head. "That's not it," he said. "I just remember Quarinis mentioned something offhand – he said big things were coming to the Kingdom, but he was sure we'd – that's you and I – make it through all right. I thought he meant the pirates, but now I'm not sure. Do you think he knows what Naudar's up to?"

Mardoban shrugged. "Maybe. The man has his sources. He also wants to be seen as knowing more than he actually does. I'll talk to him later, see if I can get anything more out of him. For the time being, duty calls."

Pakorus grinned again. "Good luck in there," he said. "You'll probably need it?"

Mardoban laughed. "Probably?" he said. "Based on past experience, to get through one of these meetings in one piece I'll need the Lord himself on my side!"

/

"And so, my lords and ladies of the council, the pirate base has been destroyed and most of their fleet is destroyed or in custody. With their operation in shambles and their Commander presumed dead, even if the pirate threat is not permanently destroyed, it will take them years to rebuild." Mardoban finished speaking and looked around at the gathered holos, gauging their reactions. He still had one final piece of information to spring on them, and he was hoping he could get something useful from their expressions.

"Hear, hear!" Duke Hiram said. "And let us not forget that Tantos forces did their part as well – "

"Tantos and Sakran," Naudar added mildly.

"Of course, of course," said Hiram, waving his hand. "In any case, the point is that the pirates are defeated and my – excuse me, our – shipping lanes are secured. If the rest of you don't mind, I have a party to be at, so can we wrap this up?"

"There is one more order of business I would like to bring before the council," Mardoban said, glancing from Hiram to Naudar and back again. "When we captured the pirate base, we also captured the pirates' computer. Most of the data was encrypted, of course, but my intelligence operatives managed to crack it. It looked like the Commander set much of the data to be deleted should the computer be captured, but we salvaged some useful pieces." He drew a deep breath. "Most obviously, records of where the pirates drew their funding from. The records point to the source being officials in Tashir duchy."

Mardoban didn't say that the information only corroborated the speculation that he'd heard from Specter – he'd rather not bring that disreputable source up in a council meeting! The holo-figures, however, reacted with appropriate drama, gasping theatrically and looking towards Sateira ast Tashir, who drew herself up and regarded them all with imperious disdain. Respen was the first to break the silence.

"Well, well," he said, a self-satisfied smirk on his face. "It seems that someone was a very dirty game. Maybe we should give the benefit of the doubt and assume that the leaks were coming from someone who was taking advantage of Duchess Sateira's goodwill. Or maybe she turned a blind eye to the fact that her subordinates were using her money to destabilize her rivals. Or maybe, just maybe, Sateira thought that actively creating the pirates and using them as her proxies would be a good way to grab power without anyone realizing it until it was too late? Unfortunately, it seems she's overplayed her hand. What a pity."

Sateira surged to her feet, eyes blazing and thin face flushed with anger. "You dare?" she spat. "I'll see you on the dueling field for that, Respen! I have never made it secret that I seek to advance the interests of my own duchy – which of us doesn't? – but I have never done so at the expense of the Kingdom. Whoever is behind this is obviously trying to frame me. You go too far!"

"Seems I've touched a nerve," Respen said, looking around and smiling. "I wonder what else Tashir is hiding?"

"Actually," Mardoban said calmly, "I'm inclined to agree with Sateira. You see, the Tashiran official linked to the pirates was a man named Pallin Tathos – a high ranking bureaucrat, very rich and well-connected, who, interestingly enough, has been dead for more than sixty years. As dead men don't usually finance piratical operations, my intelligence operatives have concluded that someone was using Tathos's identity as a cover to move funds and resources, likely in an attempt to pin the blame on Tashir should the data be traced. So far, they haven't been able to follow the money trail past the false identity, but I will share my findings with you once they do."

Sateira smiled coldly. "As I suspected," she said. "Care to apologize, Respen?"

"It was an honest mistake," Respen snapped, looking defensive. "The regent's facts were incomplete, and I thought they implied…"

"What you would have done if you'd thought of it?" Sateira asked. "Don't try to pretend otherwise."

Now it was Respen's turn to flush angrily, but before he could speak, Mardoban interrupted. "As diverting as this is," he said, "a council meeting isn't the place to trade insults. For the moment, there is no actual evidence incriminating Sateira, and aspersions on the character of its members is beneath this body. If no one else has any matters to raise, I will consider this meeting adjourned…"

"Actually," Naudar said mildly, "I have a matter I would like to present to the council for a vote."

Mardoban frowned, but this wasn't unexpected, considering Naudar's earlier insinuations. "Very well," he said, "that is, after all, your right. What do you have for us?"

"My lords and ladies," Naudar said, "I think that we all know that this Kingdom has been without a monarch for too long. True, Aestera ast Carann – may the Lord's light shine upon her soul – left no heir, but I think that recent events have proven that we cannot go on as twelve competing duchies with no central authority outside of this council. The recent appearance of a crown – a crown that appears empowered to judge the worthiness of a claimant – casts this matter into even sharper relief. Clearly, my friends, this is a sign from heaven – the Dozen Stars needs a leader, and it cannot be anyone – only the best and brightest of us."

"The crown is a fraud," Respen snapped. "My blood ties to the House ast Carann are closer than any of yours, and my duchy has the strongest military, and it tried to kill me all the same. If I'm not worthy, none of us is. The crown is an insult at best, an attempt to assassinate whoever wears it at worst, and if he cared to follow my advice, our regent would have thrown it into Carann's sun already."

"Humble as ever, Respen" Naudar said in a faintly amused tone. "But it may be that purity of blood and strength of arms aren't what this crown judges. Perhaps other qualities make a worthy leader – and perhaps our next ruler won't be one of us gathered here, but one from the next generation to rise and take the mantle."

"Oh, Naudar," Hiram snapped, "we all know that you think your children are the future of a dynasty. Go ahead and nominate yourself – or your boy Darius – for the throne, so we can all vote you down and get on with our lives!"

"My proposal is nothing so crude," Naudar said. "In times gone by, it was customary in this Kingdom to decide important matters through contests of arms, of skill, and of nerve. Authority derived not from blood, but from achievement. Artax the Founder was no one before the war of separation from the Empire catapulted him to power. Perhaps what we need today is a new Artax. My lords and ladies, I propose to you that we hold a grand tournament on Carann when the new Realm Year begins – to the winner, and perhaps the closest competitors, shall go the right to try the crown. Should they succeed, we shall have a king or queen who has proven their quality. Should they fail – then perhaps the crown should be disregarded as a judge. But in any case, this matter should be settled, once and for all!"

The holos erupted in a torrent of noise as the council members began shouting at each other, at Naudar, and at Mardoban, resulting in a cacophony in which no voice could be clearly distinguished. Finally, the regent stood, raised both his hands, and roared "Enough! We are duke and duchesses of the realm, not squabbling children. Speak one at a time, so that everyone can be heard!"

"Do you really think we'd agree to this, Naudar?" Hiram spluttered. "We haven't had a Kingdom-wide tournament in almost a hundred years! And besides, we all know how proud you are of your children's skill with the dueling sword – all three of them! This is nothing more than a blatant attempt to put an ast Sakran on the throne, and you know it!"

"Maybe so," Naudar said. "I will admit, my sons and daughter have made me very proud with how they've developed their skills – a father couldn't ask for more. But for all I know, there's someone much better out there who hasn't been discovered. Respen, maybe this is your chance to finally show us what that vaunted training you give your soldiers and knights is really worth, eh? Or Hiram, that your wealth and connections has really bought your nobles the best teachers in the Kingdom? Or Sateira, you've always thought that you lead more efficiently than any of us – this could be your chance to prove what that's worth! Even smaller duchies that have been overlooked in politics could have the chance to shine – who knows what skilled swordmasters they may have? This is our chance to get together in front of the whole Kingdom and show everyone that all the boasting we've done over the years isn't just toothless. I'd be pleased with the opportunity – aren't you?"

Mardoban frowned – he saw what Naudar was doing, and it was working. He knew that getting the council members to cooperate wouldn't work, so instead he was giving them an opportunity to compete, playing to their egos – and to their ambitions, dangling the chance to put one of their own on the throne in front of them. But despite his words, Mardoban was certain that Naudar didn't truly believe anyone could best his children, champion duelists all. He intended to put an ast Sakran on the throne, and had picked the means he thought most likely to succeed.

"You're rather quiet, Orlanes," Hiram said. "Not interested in showing off for the rest of us?"

"I think that I'm too old for tournaments," Mardoban said, "and that my son is no fighter – your champion won't be from House ast Orlanes, no matter what happens. I don't think this is how Aestera would want her successor chosen, but then, she has been dead for more than a decade – maybe I'm just stuck in the past, still worried about what she'd have us do. But if you all agree to this, I will defer to the council's will. Shall we vote?"

The holos of the council members nodded; Mardoban looked from one ambitious, calculating face to the next and sighed. He wasn't surprised to watch hands raise, starting with Naudar, until there were ten hands in the air. As regent and Duke Orlanes he had two votes, but still, it was obvious. The council had spoken.

"So be it," Mardoban whispered.

/

"A tournament for the crown?" Quarinis asked with disbelief, looking askance at Mardoban. "Really? Seems rather barbaric, don't you think?"

"Strange," the regent said. "I was under the impression that in the Empire, blood sport was a favorite pastime for the elite. Was I mistaken, or are you just not a fan of it personally?"

"Oh, the Arena is always popular," said Quarinis, turning to look out over the city from the balcony where he and the regent stood. "I can't say I'm a particular fan of bloodshed as entertainment, but politics have required me to attend my share of matches and I find it tolerable, at least. Still – slaves fight. Animals fight. Machines fight. Senators and patricians do not. Certainly not for titles."

Mardoban tried to keep his disgust from showing on his face – slavery was illegal in the Dozen Stars, but it was still practiced in the Empire. Mardoban found the practice distasteful in the extreme even when slaves weren't being forced to kill each other for the amusement of an audience, but saying that aloud and risking offending Quarinis so much it would cause an interstellar incident wasn't something he wanted to do either. Besides, as Quarinis represented the strongest nation in this arm of the galaxy and the Kingdom's closest neighbor, informing him of an event of such potential import was required, and that meant this conversation was necessary. "Tournaments have a grand tradition in the Dozen Stars," he said carefully. "Not usually for stakes this high, I'll admit, and it's been generations since we've had one with contestants from every duchy, but smaller ones aren't uncommon. We're a competitive people, ambassador, and can't resist the opportunity to show off."

Quarinis snorted. "A martial people, you mean to say," he observed. "It's been my experience that almost every one of your nobles, man or woman, is trained to fight from a young age. Or to duel, I suppose."

"If we are a martial people, ambassador, we are what you made us," Mardoban said. "After all, it was our war of independence from the Empire that required every man and woman to take up arms, and we've continued the tradition ever since."

The ambassador chuckled at that. "Quaint," he said. "Admirable, but quaint. Still, I'll be watching things unfold with great interest. Who will be competing, exactly?"

"Tournaments are traditionally open to anyone with noble blood," Mardoban said, "but it's usually the younger members of a given house who do most of the competing on their parents' behalf – a chance to show off the younger generation and avoid embarrassing us old fogies in front of everyone. Commoners can enter if they have sponsorship from a guild or a noble house – guilds do it to raise their own prestige, nobles if they don't have any blood relatives they think will be any good." He chuckled. "Technically, clergy are allowed to enter too, but I've never heard of one actually doing it. I think the church's opinion on tournaments is rather closer to yours than mine, ambassador."

"Is it really your opinion, your grace?" Quarinis asked softly. "Or are you just putting on a brave face about it as a matter of nation pride in front of a representative of a foreign power? I think you have more doubts that you're letting on."

"If I did," Mardoban said stiffly, "it wouldn't be appropriate for me to share them with, as you say, a representative of a foreign power."

"Of course not," Quarinis said. The two men stood silently for a long moment, then nodded at each other and Mardoban turned to leave. Before he reached the door that lead back into the palace, the ambassador's voice stopped him.

"By the way," he said, "I think congratulations are in order. I hear you did quite well in battle against those pirates. I trust they won't be troubling us again?"

"It was as much Naudar's victory as mine," Mardoban said. "He saved my life, after all. But yes, the pirates are defeated, thank the Lord."

"Good," said Quarinis, cold satisfaction in his voice. "We don't tolerate such criminals in the Empire, and I'm pleased you dealt with them here as well. I dislike chaotic elements." He smiled thinly. "Do tell me when the tournament will be held. I look forward to attending; it will be first. No doubt it will be a most enlightening experience."

"I will," Mardoban said, nodding. "I look forward to seeing you there, Ambassador." Then he turned back to the door and entered the palace, leaving Publius Vedrans Quarinis standing alone on the balcony, gazing out over Carann's capital city with a quietly thoughtful expression on his face.