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Clash of Heirs - Zotikas: Episode 1

 

 

 

ZOTIKAS

 

EPISODE 1: CLASH OF HEIRS

 

BY

 

TOM BRUNO

&

ROB STOREY

 

 

 

Table of Contents:

Chapter One 3

Chapter Two 12

Chapter Three 22

Chapter Four 31

Chapter Five 40

Chapter Six 47

Chapter Seven 55

Chapter Eight 62

Chapter Nine 67

Chapter Ten 71

Chapter Eleven 75

Chapter Twelve 85

Author’s Notes 91

 

 

[] Chapter One

 

Bags’ broad hand hovered above the throttle of the mag-lev raider. Kieler watched him, both of them tense and ready. Years of waiting would come to an end in minutes, perhaps seconds. Bags never shifted his eyes from the narrow, rain-streaked windscreen. He searched the darkness for the signal.

In the cockpit of the unpainted metal sled, sweat and rain had scented the air with the metallic tang of rust. A lull in the downpour created an unnerving quiet as their low-slung craft hovered silently in the very bottom of the V-shaped track. The iron and magal track was built for much larger vehicles—not that the raider was tiny. It could, when the now-empty cargo bay was loaded, hold enough food pirated from a freighter to feed a borough for a week.

Lightning flashed, illuminating the face of Kieler’s companion. Bags, his dark blue eyes unblinking in his blocky face, didn’t look anything like a rebel. He looked like a family man; a determined family man intent on fixing a chair or some other mundane task.

But Bags wasn’t just waiting for a signal; he was waiting for justice. When he spoke, his voice was low and cool despite the heat and tension. “Storms came late this year.”

Kieler grunted. For weeks they had waited restlessly for the winter storms to roll in from the northeast sea and the mountainous continent of Ardan beyond. Had the storms not come today, the last possible day, Kieler’s chances of succeeding tomorrow night were slight.

Following his friend’s gaze out the windscreen, Kieler stared into the darkness, peering through his own dim reflection. His dark brown hair and brown eyes vanished in the dim light, but he could see his face. There was nothing remarkable about it, allowing him to go unnoticed when necessary.

Lightning struck Garrist Ring miles off and far above, momentarily dispelling the ghost of his visage. The upward sloping sides of the huge track to their left and right blocked most of their view, but straight ahead the flash of light silhouetted the dominant tower of Garrist Ring, the spires of the Executive Chair’s palace.

“Don’t act upset.” Bags challenged Kieler’s supposedly sour mood. “You’re excited to be doing something, same as me.” His big face was pale in the dim light. A clenched jaw muscle twitched. “Tomorrow you’ll be in the EC’s palace, way better than hiding in that hole we call home.”

His accomplice was right. Despite the twist in his stomach, Kieler felt like a coiled spring, and he liked it. “The nethercity has been my ‘home’ since I was eight. You’re a newbie.”

Now Bags grunted and leaned forward, as if he could see more than darkness and raindrops. He didn’t take his hand away from the throttle. He replied slowly, “Doesn’t seem much use in bragging about how long you’ve lived in our starless hell under the Plate.”

“I’m not bragging. I’m just saying we’ve waited a long time for the chance to strike back at these highborns. Stealing the sigil tonight starts the machinery of revolution Movus has been putting together for years. It’s the first step toward you and I living in the light of Rei again.” After a pause Kieler added in a mutter, “And the first step in getting your wife back from that prog Telander.”

Bags made no audible reply, but Kieler could feel the heat rise from his friend.

A long, silent time passed. Other than the distant lights of Garrist Ring, which they glimpsed when the clouds scudded out from in front of the high-rise district, their view was illuminated only by the occasional lightning as it flashed closer. It didn’t matter. Any view of their actual target was blocked by the high sides and curve of the track. The storm swirled in and the metallic tinging on the top of the sled resumed.

Their target was the Cortatti compound, and Kieler knew from studying the extensive maps provided by his mentor Movus, it was both a fortress and an oasis in the industrial northeast section of the Isle of Threes. Unlike many Houses of the Omeron, which possessed rich villas on the continents, or penthouses in downtown Avertori far from their economic centers, the Cortattis lived where they worked. Surrounded by their weapons factories, foundries and the rail yards which supported their industry, their residence and administrative headquarters rose monolithic from the rough neighborhood.

Kieler had seen the colossal six-sided structure from the promenade on Garrist Ring. If he compartmentalized his thoughts, Kieler could almost admire the efficiency of House Cortatti—as much as any feeling human could admire a family who had killed every person in House Ortessi just to elevate themselves.

But the Cortattis worked. Other houses, like Telander, which continued to drain profits from their vehicle manufacturing monopoly, now spent their days in idle pleasures—or perversions. Kieler had nudged Bags’ anger by bringing up that House Primes were often untouchable by the cumbersome legal system in Avertori. While to most people Borgus Telander’s penchant for women-not-his-wife was just a rumor; Bags could confirm it first hand. That Bags was still alive was testimony to his simple wisdom over his passion for revenge. Borgus Telander would casually eliminate problems like Bags should they threaten his perverse fetish.

Despite the long silence, when Bags spoke Kieler realized he had been dwelling on his last comment. “Will she want me back when we do bring Telander down?” Bags didn’t look away from the windscreen, but Kieler felt the intensity radiating from his friend. It was a perceptive thought: that things happen emotionally to violated women. And just as profound was Bags’ simple certainty that they would succeed.

“Yes, Bags. Regardless of what Telander does. Everything you told me about her says she is a solid, dedicated woman. She is building up an emotional citadel that only you can enter.”

Bags flicked him a glance, gauging Kieler, a hint of moist eyes and a hard smile. “You don’t know nothin’ about women, Sparks!” Bags snorted, using Kieler’s Coin name. “You never even had a girlfriend.” Bags’ smile faded into a tight line. “But I believe you about my Eznea. She’ll be right. We just gotta get her back.”

Kieler detected the catch in Bags’ voice that gave away how hard he was trying to convince himself.

Two lights blinked on in the middle distance. Before he could point them out, Kieler was slammed back in his seat by the rapid acceleration as Bags slammed forward the throttle.

They had thirty seconds.

When a full-size powercoach accelerated, the motion was barely perceptible. Both heavy freighters and powercoaches rode high in the V-shaped track. But their own raider sat along the bottom; low, sleek, and a mere fraction of the mass. When Bags hit the throttle, they hit the back of their seats.

An empty cargo hold, a high velocity magnetic impeller, and a frictionless suspension—they were built for speed.

Kieler had no doubt this was the fastest conveyance on Zotikas.

Hurtling down the long, gently-curving slot, velocity increasing, all Kieler could do was hope that the two guards at the gate ahead were distracted by his apparently inebriated co-conspirators. Across from the gate they’d be crashing were two pubs frequented by a literal army of guards as they got off duty from the Cortatti complex. Two of Kieler’s squad mates were to stagger over from one of the bars and call the men out of the guard shack. His third squad member was to provide the fireworks—a fake lightning flash just as they passed. The guards just needed to have their backs to the tracks.

At just over 400 miles per hour, the low metal ship in which Kieler and Bags sat would sound like thunder and a sudden, violent wind as it passed. In this rain, it would be past the guards and out of sight before they could possibly turn around—as long as they weren’t looking in the first place.

As they approached the massive gates that regulated powercoaches and freighters entering the Cortatti domain, Kieler got to see the barrier for less than a second. Then they shot beneath it. The gates did not extend into the groove of the track. Presumably, an impeller couldn’t be built small enough for a ship their size. Kieler had his late father to thank for that bit of engineering.

A brilliant flash exploded above the rim of the track to his right. It was the magal-luzhril blast to add noise to their sled’s high-speed passing. His men at the gate would swear to the guards that they were almost struck by lightning.

The instant they passed under the gates, Bags threw the throttle from full ahead to full reverse. They were thrown forward into their shoulder restraints, now decelerating at the same breakneck rate at which they had accelerated. They now had thirty more seconds to slow down or smash through a weapons factory dock. Though uncomfortable, Kieler decided that this rate of deceleration was far preferred to that of impact.

Most troubling, Kieler would have to go after the Ortessi Sigil without knowing whether they would have an unwelcoming party at the end of the line. If the guards at the gate hadn’t fallen for their thunder and lightning ploy, they would telegraph the keep and this would be a short mission. The curve of the track took them through a maze of rail yard switches and industrial stockpiles. Kieler looked up at freighters looming a full three stories on parallel tracks as they flew by. He was strangely detached, watching with absolutely no control as they slowed through three-fifty, three twenty-five—

“Bags!” Kieler hissed. “Is that freighter parked on our track?”

Bags pounded the throttle back against the stops. All they had time to do was brace for impact. The metal wall of the looming freighter rushed toward them… and flashed darkly over them. Their raider was designed for that very purpose, to pirate these freighters from below.

With no time for congratulating themselves, a whole train laden with cargo seemed to fly at them. Again they skidded under it, but the weight of the cargo lowered it just enough that as they passed through, there was a crack! and then a fierce short shriek of metal on metal.

Bags glanced over at him; his raised eyebrows making his long face look longer. “I think we lost the hatch handle.”

Relief, and the comic look, made Kieler spit out a laugh. If that was the worst they suffered tonight it would be a good night.

Their speed dropped through 250, then 200, as they whipped between the parked freighters. Eventually they slowed to were their passage was a mere whisper.

But now the end of the line sped toward them.

“Bags! End of the line!”

Bags pressed back on the throttle so hard that Kieler thought it would bend, but it was already full against the stop. Through clenched teeth he growled, “I see it. Not much I can do.”

But even though they looked to be rapidly closing on the dock wall, they were decelerating at the same rate at which they had launched. With one last lurch, they stopped just feet from the metal dock. Next to them loomed the enormous hulk of an ore hopper.

They turned and grinned at each other.

“Beats hiding in that hole!” Kieler quipped. He unstrapped. “I’m outta here. See you in forty-five or I won’t see you at all.”

“I’ll get this sled turned around on a nice quiet siding while you go for your walk. Good stars, Kieler!” Bags called.

Kieler chuckled at the superstitious blessing. He darted out a hatch in the bulkhead behind them and scrambled up a ladder. In moments he was atop the craft. With a running start across the roof of the sled, he jumped and grabbed the top of the V-track. On the next track hovered the huge freighter. As he pulled himself out, he saw that the front of their craft was just feet from a shock absorbing bumper. Perhaps their doom was not as imminent as it had appeared.

Then he saw that just on the other side of the bumper was the wall of a factory.

Kieler jogged down the dock under a loading crane suspended over the freighter in rusty, frozen sleep. The rain slid off the oiled cloak he had pulled up over his head. He also pulled on a dark mask, trademark of the Coin, the underground organization of which both Kieler and Bags were a part. He probably didn’t need the mask; if he was caught, Kieler was dead with or without it. Undoubtedly he’d be sent straight into the Arena without trial.

Nevertheless, his mask, so much a part of his identity, gave him a certain amount of comfort. Despite the dark and the rain, he felt strangely exposed without it.

This entire industrial complex was built directly on the solidity of the city-spanning Plate, the divider between the sunlit city above and the never-lit city below. Kieler sidled along the back of the aged factory to an ugly, open, metal staircase that switched back and forth up several levels until he gained the topmost landing. There he found a door, locked.

He glanced back down to the dock and cluttered railyard as he extracted a pick set from under his cloak. Rain and rust. Darkness and corruption. The complex looked skeletal and lifeless. But through the falling rain, Kieler saw Bags easing the raider slowly backward toward a switch where he could turn around. Stealth, not speed, was his objective now.

 The lock offered no challenge and opened within seconds. He shoved a small rock in the door so that it would not re-latch.

Passing through that door was like stepping from hell directly into heaven. He stood in the rain at the edge of the immense garden on the Cortatti estate; everything was perfectly manicured, as if the greenery were built to precise specifications rather than allowed to grow.

Luzhril lanterns in ornate fixtures lined cobbled paths that wound through lush grass, sculpted topiary, and perfectly symmetrical trees of equal height. From his current position all he could see of the main residence was a hazy glow through the drizzly rain. The garden was enormous.

The budget needed to maintain such opulence—the garden alone—would feed many of the hundreds of thousands of outcasts living under the Plate. Kieler admittedly would prefer wealth to poverty, but he knew that the Cortattis had gained and maintained their riches through the blood of others. Much of their income came from the production and sale of weapons, and they promoted those weapons through the Arena, their “entertainment” facility. Bloodsport.

Kieler couldn’t understand how such a thing was tolerated. Human life sacrificed for the sick pleasure of others.

He kept off the path and ran through the trees toward where he knew the Cortatti stronghold would be. After a quarter mile jog the keep seemed to coalesce in the haze, first as a vague shadow, and then—despite his preparation—as a ziggurat that both awed and daunted him in its sheer immensity. The main keep stood thirty stories high and glistened in luzhril-lit splendor; fountains, terraces, and unfortunately, guards. They patrolled the terraces that surrounded the smooth stone edifice. Despite the carefully scripted beauty of the grounds, the monstrous residence had no large windows to view them, as if windows were a weakness to be kept to a minimum.

At the points of the hexagonal keep, six bastions rose to three-quarters of the keep’s height. And atop each bastion, more guards.

The object of his mission lay in the library at the base of one of those towers. Movus had provided the intel on this secret approach. Without it,  Kieler believed entrance to the keep would have been impossible. What connections Movus had before he was exiled, and what he had done to necessitate that exile, he had never shared with Kieler.

He spied what he was looking for: a line of shrubbery, again perfectly trimmed, leading from near the treeline to a statue nearer the citadel. He worked his way through the trees to where the shrubs came closest. The rain blurred every image, and despite the bright lights, he felt sure he was not seen as he scuttled out of the trees and dove behind the bushes.

It was then a long, hard low-crawl to stay beneath the short bushes and out of the line of sight of the tower guards. A hundred yards found him at the edge of a paved circle around the statue near the headquarters of Cortatti power.

Indeed, the keep itself was not his immediate destination; it was the statue. From the cover of the bushes, Kieler dodged over to the pedestal. He glanced up at the marble sculpture. Of all the gaudy, vainglorious monuments, this one was of a Cortatti in military uniform with a maggun, the magnetic rifle for which they were famous, held up like an object of worship.

Diminished in comparison to the keep, the statue was still thrice life size. The large pedestal bore a dull metal engraving:

 

FOR THOSE DEFENDING

LOVED ONES BY THE

USE OF THESE WEAPONS

 

As Kieler pulled out a simple iron magnet—not its more active form magal—again he wondered, how did Movus learn of this?

He touched the magnet to the inscription in sequence to the only singly occurring letters: W – A – R. And with a soft click, the base unlatched and swung open to reveal a descending ladder.

He climbed down into a passage just under the garden level. The deep darkness forced him to pull out a short rod with a small shard of luzhril fastened to its end, though he was aware of how it highlighted him. He walked toward the citadel through the narrow corridor. Who knows of this passage besides Movus? Feleanna Cortatti? Feleanna was now the very ambitious, defacto leader of House Cortatti, since her father was said to be quite mad.

As he walked the tunnel, Kieler shed his mask and outer garments, uncovering a Cortatti guard uniform. From a distance he wouldn’t be out of place. Up close, he’d have to take his chances.

The narrow corridor led two hundred yards straight under the garden and into a lower level of the weighty edifice above. It ended at another ladder going up. The passage’s purpose seemed to be an escape route, though obviously it might be used to reenter the main building in secret as well. Its only defense was its secrecy, and that had been compromised.

Kieler left his mask and cloak and climbed, pulling back the latch to a trap door in the ceiling. He cautiously put his shoulder to the hatch. It took more effort than he expected to lift and peek out. He saw immediately that the floor around it was expensive tile, probably from the quarries of eastern Coprackus. No wonder the hatch was so heavy.

A strong pungency struck him as he climbed into a wine cellar. He saw that the edge of the secret hatch abutted a wine rack against the wall. Inside the rack was a well-hidden latch used to open the trap door from above. It was cleverly and precisely made, and Kieler appreciated such devices. He noted its location for his return trip, but on a hunch, left the hatch open. Instinct told him this room would not be on a patrol route.

Again he wondered who used this entrance and how often.

His musings did not cause him to slow down, however. There was no evidence that the guards from the powercoach gate had alerted the main residence, but if a patrol spotted their ship in the rail yard below, it was best that what he must do be done quickly. At least the rain and the shadow of the freighter would make the sled very difficult to see.

The door to the wine room opened out to a tasting area. It was cool, and the redolence of fine wines saturated his nose. This scent, though exquisitely pleasant, somehow reminded him of the stale rank of a pub he frequented in his information trade, The Bottom of the Barrel. The alcoholic stench of that pub was an acquired tolerance.

No one was about. He exited the wine chamber and followed the map Movus had provided and Kieler had memorized. He moved with certainty through the exquisitely tiled lower level of the Cortatti keep. This southwestern side was mostly residential. In fact, the map showed Feleanna’s suites to be two and three floors directly above the wine rooms.

 The administrative and intelligence headquarters occupied the north side of the keep. Kieler would stay well clear of that as it was sure to be even more heavily guarded.

This lower corridor was cool with several heavy wooden doors on either side. He passed one door on his right hung with a sign that was strikingly out of place, considering the residential feel of this part of the building. It read: STAY OUT OR DIE.

Not on Kieler’s route anyway. He continued toward the stairway that led up to the great hall on the main floor. He spun silently onto the stair and had gone but five steps when he simultaneously heard and saw the feet of two guards coming down. Instantly he about-faced and was off the stair, backtracking down the tiled hall. There were two doors close, both locked, and then the STAY OUT door. Figuring it locked, he nevertheless tried the lever as he passed. He was shocked to have it swing open.

The guards were chatting, about to round the corner from the stairs.

Be caught, stay out, or die.

He chose to risk dying.

Within, Kieler swung the door closed quickly, slowing it an inch from the latch and then pushing it gently shut. His quick glance around had revealed little, but no instant death came upon him. Instead, the room was quiet, lit by a single source far across the room and shaded by a curtain.

The voices in the hall were faint but did not fade. The two guards had stopped somewhere outside the door. He leaned close to the heavy door to try and hear words but could not.

Move on! he mentally commanded, focusing on their presence beyond.

What if they come in here?

What is in here, anyway?

Accompanying that thought came the uncanny feeling that he was not alone. He turned his head slowly, eyes adjusting to the dimmer light, and saw a faint silhouette against the backlit curtain.

[] Chapter Two

 

The part of the room in which Kieler stood was like a waiting room but with only one chair and one low cocktail table, stacked with books. But separating the waiting area from the much larger portion of the room were dark metal bars, spanning floor-to-ceiling, that he hadn’t seen in the low light. The entire chamber was covered with a rich carpet. Within the barred area was an ornate bedroom set, a full wall of bookshelves, and a curtained private area from which the light shone.

These details he noted incidentally as he tried to pierce the gloom and see more of the man standing not three feet behind the bars. At first he thought the shadow might be a statue, still as it was. But then he noticed a halo of thinning red hair and the slightest motion of his shoulders. Hands behind his back and eyes shadowed, he silently watched Kieler.

What kind of criminal gets this kind of quarters?

Chilled and at a loss, Kieler didn’t know whether to speak first or wait. He could not tackle the man, regardless of the bars. The man could easily cry out an alert before Kieler reached him. And besides, a prisoner, of sorts—he could have called out already had he wished.

Waiting for the eerie man drove Kieler crazy. He broke the silence with a whispered question, “What are you being held for?”

Despite the shadowed face, Kieler knew the man smiled slightly. He didn’t whisper but spoke quietly enough that the guards could not hear. “I hear a voice.” His pitch was oddly high.

An answer or an observation?

Torn between wanting to get moving and not wanting this man to sound the alarm, Kieler searched for the right thing to say.

“Hearing voices is not a crime,” Kieler remarked cautiously.

The man cocked his head, regarding him—or listening. “Especially when the voice is the truth.” Another uncomfortable pause. “But no one else seems to hear this voice.”

Having no idea what to make of that, Kieler once again wondered what to do. He could still hear talking in the hall outside. It seemed—had this been a normal conversation—that the man should be asking Kieler a few questions like, “Why are you hiding from the guards in the middle of the night?” or “What are you doing here?”

But something wasn’t normal about this person.

Finally, the man did ask a question—a question as unexpected as his behavior.

“Do you want to hear what the voice says about you?”

There was silence. Complete silence. The guards had moved on. Kieler was ready to run. Yet now his curiosity was piqued. And the question remained; would this man give him away?

Kieler didn’t have time for distractions. He peeked out the door, found it clear, and left. He hadn’t answered the man and he hadn’t time for strange discussions. He ran down the empty hall.

Listening carefully this time, he hit the stairs and bounded up them three at a time. At the top, a different kind of disorientation hit him. There seemed to be nothing in front of him. A single dim light shone behind him from the wall above the stairs, creating a small semi-circle of light that faded into darkness before him. Above him was a cavernous space so high it seemed to be open to the outside. For a moment he was reminded of the main cavern beneath the Plate. That cavern, several miles across, hosted Karst, city of exile.

Then he saw lights far away and knew this, though enormous for a building, was not miles across. The lights marked the far side of the Cortatti great hall, dimmed for night. The lights also pinpointed his target: the bastion at the far east corner.

Before crossing the open space, Kieler faded to his left and into the shadows. He looked up and back at the second floor to watch the promenade that overlooked the great hall. Double doors and windows, darkened, were probably Feleanna’s quarters. As he watched, a patrolling guard passed indolently by those doors and continued farther south along the high promenade. The guard was bored. Kieler could almost imagine the man’s thoughts: “Why am I here? No one would ever dare to intrude on the Cortatti estate.”

Kieler grinned, and the thrill of what he was doing rose in him. 

Kieler dared.

And he would dare much more at tomorrow night’s New Year’s gala—provided he succeeded here tonight.

Once the guard was gone, Kieler forced himself to stride confidently across the open area. Movus’ map had led Kieler to expect big, but the magnitude of the great hall could not be gauged from a mere blueprint. As he crossed he looked up and actually staggered with vertigo from the emptiness above and before him. The ceiling, and he knew there had to be one, was not visible. The great hall must have been open the full height to the top of the ziggurat.

The lights of the far wall, like pinpoints of stars, eventually resolved to show four rows of columns. The bases of the immense columns were the size of buildings themselves, and they disappeared upward toward the obscured ceiling.

He was awed.

Disgusted at his own reaction, Kieler almost spat. This was typical of the gross opulence and pride of the ruling houses. They must appear imposing beyond limits, untouchable, unapproachable. As an archaic saying went, “Thus they lived, mere mortals; thus they ruled, immortal.”

But he knew them to be men, with fears and insecurities, hoarding wealth and holding it close so that no one could wrench it from their clutching grasp. And the Cortattis, through violence and deception, were one of the few houses that could actually maintain such grandeur. Most of the rest of Avertori was in steep decline.

He smiled grimly. Here he was, about to steal a symbol of house power from the most heavily armed, well-guarded, ruthless house in history. And this was only the preamble. This was just preparation for nothing short of a revolution.

Glancing up again, he kept his focus on the lights on the nearing side of the empty gallery, acting out a courage he did not feel. He felt exposed despite the keep’s vast dimness. At least he was moving. Poor Bags, sitting back there minding their ride, was probably pacing the cargo hold.

Kieler reached the far wall and found the columned entryway to their main library. He checked it clear, and dashed up to the library doors at the base of the tower. He slipped the bolt with a tool from inside his fake uniform jacket and passed inside.

Again the only proper descriptor was “awe.” The library went both up and down, every wall of the hexagonal room filled with shelves and books. Kieler had always heard people talk of House Cortatti as mindless brutes—a stereotype Movus had warned Kieler not to believe. Most people would be surprised that they could read. But that they maintained such a well appointed library—that surprised even Kieler.

In the center, hanging down from the ceiling, was a globe lantern, mostly shuttered. But enough could be seen through the shutters for Kieler to realize it held a cut stone of high-quality luzhril the size of his head—a fortune in itself. The shutters were undoubtedly magal, regulating the energy of the globe for safe use. An unbridled globe that size would be so intense it would cause a sunburn in a very short time.

 The light escaping from the suspended lantern allowed Kieler to make out the various artworks displayed around the center of the athenaeum. While he was not a student of art, he was certain each piece was phenomenally expensive. As he passed through the center to the stairs on the far left wall, he could tell another thing too: the art was coordinated. Each piece was carefully placed and set to match in style, size, form and genre. They were on display not only as a show of power, but appreciation. He wondered who had arranged the place.

None of these pieces were what he sought. The cases of jewelry and ornate weapons, paintings and carvings—none were as valuable to the Cortattis as the single item he was after.

He climbed a wrought-iron stair to the top level and a recessed alcove. Another locked door barred his way, and this one Movus had assured him he could not pick, its lock being both shaped and magnetically coded within. But the door was simple dark glass.

Listening for a patrol and hearing nothing, Kieler smashed a hole through the expensive glass and reached his hand in to open the fancy and useless lock mechanism from the inside. The security design was manifest arrogance.

Inside a small sitting room were three fine chairs and a table on which to place their coveted treasures for admiring. Kieler exposed the chip of luzhril on his sheathed rod. He quickly found a small but heavy case on a shelf. The metalized glass was designed to sustain and display four house sigils. Each piece was crafted of the finest luzhril jewels; each unique in the colors of an ancient house. He opened the heavy, magal-lined lid and the gems of each piece flashed to life—a dramatic and inspiring effect. The symbols were designed to be worn on the formal attire of a house prime as a statement of authority and authenticity. But none of these was the Cortatti’s own signet. That they possessed these heirlooms was evidence of treachery.

With a burst of anger, Kieler wanted to scoop out every one of the signets, each representing an extinct house, exterminated by Cortatti in the past. But Movus gave the orders. And he claimed the signets were much more useful in the possession of the Cortattis as a means to damn them; to convict them when the time was right.

But one of these symbols of house legitimacy was needed by Kieler.

He picked up a jeweled signet in the shape of a six-pointed star, alternating between three long and three short points. The long points of the star were decorated with glittering green luzhril and the short with a lovely golden amber, the stone of time. This iconic shape symbolized history and was the preeminent mark on books and art that preserved the rich achievements and foundational principles upon which a more visionary Omeron had been established. This was the sigil handed down to the successors of House Ortessi.

That the Cortattis held this jeweled emblem was only rumored. The fire that destroyed every member of family Ortessi was officially deemed an accidental tragedy. But every house knew who had arranged it. And every house had looked away from pursuing justice because of the personal cost. To do what was right would have attracted the retribution of House Cortatti. No one wanted to add their own sigil to this growing collection—it wasn’t worth the risk.

Kieler’s thoughts translated to his fierce grip on the sharp-pointed clasp. He almost drew blood from his own hand before the pain cut through his anger to his rational thought. Time to get out of here. He had what he needed.

He took a long last look around. There were so many artifacts of unimaginable value in the room around him. He licked his lips. To take even one more piece—not to have but to sell—would change his fortune forever. But Kieler had a higher calling; he wanted to bring down this corrupt regime, not become like it. Besides, the other pieces were known to belong to House Cortatti. Possessing one would incriminate Kieler.

This piece, this signet, was not supposed to be here. They could accuse him of nothing without incriminating themselves.

He tucked it into the pocket of his coat and turned to leave.

He spun out of the private collection room and pulled up short—almost crashing into a guard. The man stood in numb confusion, staring at the broken pane of glass. They stood frozen, mutually shocked, trying to process implications.

While the lackadaisical guard could not fathom that his cushy job had just turned into a nightmare, Kieler reached an actionable decision: He smashed the guard’s face with the palm of his hand.

He had intended to knock him senseless, forestalling any reaction by the guard. But instead the man fell backward, losing his maggun down the metal stairs. Whether he was conscious or not, the metal gun on two stories of metal stairs clanged and echoed as loudly and effectively as any alarm bell.

Kieler flew down after him, barely touching every fifth step.

He dashed from the library and hit the grand hall—and hesitated. He didn’t want to cross that open area. But it was the shortest and surest route back to the secret exit. He ran.

Before he was half way across he saw guards coming from the sides to investigate the odd alarm. One was coming straight toward him.

Kieler didn’t slow but called out to the approaching man. “It’s Corwain! He fell down the stairs and hit his head. I’m going for help!”

The guard, not recognizing Kieler, but also not able to believe he could be an infiltrator in the dead center of the keep, stopped and motioned for Kieler to stop. “Who’s Corwain?”

Kieler passed him running and called back. “The new guy. Get a doctor!”

The man started chasing Kieler, slowly at first. “Who are you?”

But Kieler had run out of names and diversions. He poured on the speed. He heard the whine of a maggun being powered up. He started veering randomly to make a harder target, opening up the distance.

“Stop that man!”

The first maggun bolt was fired from the man he had passed. It went wide in the dim light, but not so wide that it didn’t add adrenaline speed to Kieler’s feet.

Other alarms were ringing now. Real alarms. Before he reached the stairs he saw lights come on in the long suite of rooms on the second level. Feleanna Cortatti’s rooms.

 He reached the wall and bounded down the stairs. Grabbing the banister he swung around the first landing and glimpsed a guard coming up. Kieler launched himself, using the high ground advantage and his plunging momentum. Catching the unready guard full in the chest with both feet, the guard flew backward all the way to the next landing, never touching a single step on the way down. Kieler kept his momentum and swung completely over the rail to the next flight of stairs. That man didn’t follow and Kieler kept up his headlong descent to the bottom.

By the time he reached the corridor he could hear footfalls from every direction getting close fast.

A guard popped out several yards in front of him as Kieler reached the doorway to the wine tasting room. The man’s maggun was already spun up and as he leveled and shot, Kieler dove out of the corridor, accidentally tackling one of the wine tables. Fumbling for footing, he half crawled, half lurched to the storage room door, knocking over two more tables on the way. He found his footing just in time to crash through the storage room door.

Behind him, a guard fired. The bolt missed Kieler but several wine bottles exploded in front of him. Kieler stepped full speed into the liquid. As he slipped, he twisted.

His heightened awareness caused time to slow, and he had the prescience to wonder as a leveled blade passed inches above his falling face. He gawked at the inconceivable, fierce beauty of the woman he was about to collide with. Her bold, chiseled features were outlined by a wild halo of crimson hair. To further add to the incongruous vision, Kieler saw she wore nothing but a gossamer nightgown reaching only to mid-thigh.

Out of control, Kieler landed hard on his left shoulder and slid into her legs. But somehow, in a feat of dexterity he would always remember, she leapt, flipped her sword over, and stabbed downward as she too fell. Whether she had aimed for his heart and missed, or aimed with an intentional, instinctive sadism, she pierced the shoulder he had just slammed to the floor.

The blazing pain was oddly incidental.

Escape.

Escape was his only focus. He spun on the floor and pushed off the far wine rack, propelling himself toward the thankfully still open hatch. Wine bottles cascaded down from the shaken rack, bombarding the deadly angel. The only thought he spared for her was: She must not follow me down.

Head first into the hole he clutched for the ladder rungs. He caught the second one down—with his left elbow, wrenching the now bleeding shoulder. Despite his focus, his vision blurred with pain. He lurched back up and grabbed the hatch, slamming it closed. The heavy tile sounded like a thunderbolt itself as it smashed down. But that wouldn’t be enough. The woman had to know about this entrance, didn’t she?

She would unlatch it and he would be followed. From a leg sheath he pulled a four-inch blade and jammed it into the latching mechanism, essentially double latching it so that it could not be opened from above.

He slid down the ladder, the pain now fierce. At the bottom he had enough presence of mind to grab up his mask and cloak. Then he ran.

He sprinted down the under-garden passageway. He prayed that as they organized, no one but the woman would know of the secret passage. And she would have to get word to the guards outside. He should not find guards welcoming him at the statue entrance.

 It made sense. Probably only the ruling family members knew of the tunnel’s existence.

He could hear nothing in the corridor but his own footfalls and heavy breathing. The abrupt silence was strange after such violence. He held his left arm with his right. His shoulder burned.

At the other end he climbed quickly into the pedestal of the statue and slowly released the catch. Peering through the crack he saw guards running toward the residence. So far, they must have figured he was still trapped inside the keep. When clear, he swung open the door and crawled quickly out. He shut the pedestal door and ducked into cover beside the bushes.

More lights were on at the citadel and sirens blared. He clung to the shadows, crawling toward the trees. It was but a few feet later that glaring arc-lights began blazing to life all over the garden and his concealing shadows began to vanish.

He felt exposed, but the bushes still blocked line of sight with the guards patrolling the keep. He had nearly made it to the trees when he saw a guard coming toward him. With no shadows he had only one choice: he dove into the center of the hedgerow and froze.

The oncoming watchman hadn’t seen him. Within seconds the running man passed by. Had Kieler reached out his hand he could have grabbed the guard’s ankle. But the foliage of the bush hid him. It also scratched the skin of his hands and face like the claws of a wild animal.

As the guard ran on toward the main keep, Kieler crawled out and dashed into the trees. He ran from tree to tree now, knowing more guards might be coming this way to get to the main building. Soon enough they would be coming out from the keep, guided by the woman. He avoided two more of the gathering sentinels and had to break cover to sprint for the door to the steps leading down to the Plate level. Kieler hoped Bags was ready for a quick getaway.

As he flung open the door he had jammed open earlier, a shout rang out behind him. He’d been spotted.

Kieler swore. Why not just two seconds more? He’d have been through the door unseen. But he had the lead, and sheer fright gave his legs strength to take the stairs five and six at a time, guided by his good hand on the railing.

He was more than half way down the ten or so stories when pursuit came through the door above. One shot pinged down through the metal stairs, but it was so obviously ineffective that they didn’t shoot again. They bolted down the stairs after him.

He gained the ground level and sprinted across the dock. Now metal bolts followed him as the guardsmen shot from the landings of the metal staircase. He ran so as to put the crane between him and his pursuers. Magbolts sent sparks showering down as they rang off the metal of the loading crane.

Passing the freighter he spotted their sled with no small measure of relief. Bags had turned it around, ready to run, and had the top hatch opened enough to peer out. He saw Kieler immediately.

“Sparks! Come on!” Bags flung open the hatch and then dropped out of sight, heading for the cockpit.

Kieler jumped down into the deep cut V of the track, sliding down the magal slope. He hit the top of the sled and rolled. Magbolts clanged off the hull around him. Multiple shooters, but no one seemed to have a clear shot as the rain again worked to Kieler and Bags’ advantage. This time Kieler didn’t go headfirst down the hatch, but swung down, caught himself with his good arm and pulled the hatch closed over him.

“Get this sled moving!” Kieler shouted down. Before he hit the floor of the cargo hold the raider lurched forward and acceleration pressed Kieler immobile against the ladder. The hammering of magbolts on the hull dropped off within moments. His mask slid out from under his arm, and fell diagonally toward the rear of the hold, stopping only when it hit the engine compartment bulkhead. He grunted and tried to pry his head back through the rungs of the ladder.

Eventually he muscled himself down the ladder, and though still in full acceleration, managed to crawl through the open hatch into the cockpit. Looking up through the narrow windshield, he saw brilliant lights ahead: the gate! From the guardhouse, more magbolts pinged uselessly off the hull. Then Kieler’s heart dropped as he glimpsed two giant rail guns atop the gate, one pointing toward them and one aimed down the track in the direction they were going. A shell whizzed over their heads and Kieler barely felt its detonation behind them—the guards hadn’t compensated for the sled’s great speed. A breath later the gates flashed overhead. They were through—still accelerating. Before relief and exhilaration had time to take hold, another shell detonated ahead of them, tearing open the upper right of the track. Magal fragments rained down onto the raider. Had they been a full size freighter, they would have unbalanced and tumbled end over end. As it was they shot by the ragged hole and out of range.

“Back her off!” Kieler grunted, still on the floor. “We gotta slow down before we hit the curve!”

But Bags was also revved, and though he pulled back on the throttle, he only did so to neutral. The sled skimmed down the magnetic track barely slowing. They hit the first curve at still over 400 and were thrown sideways. Kieler smashed his already hurt shoulder and Bags, straining to stay in his seat, finally reversed the impeller to decelerate without throwing Kieler through the windscreen.

Kieler groaned and fell into his seat.

“Did you get it?” Bags glanced sideways at him.

Kieler reached into his jacket and pulled out the gold and green jeweled star. “I got it.”

Bags whooped and clapped his friend on the shoulder, eliciting a wince and a scream. “You ok?”

“I got stabbed. I think it was Feleanna Cortatti,” he grimaced.

Bags eyes went wide. “What! Sorry. But you did it! You didn’t need good stars, you just needed one good star, and you got it!”

“I got it,” Kieler repeated, relaxing as they slowed to a more controllable speed.

[] Chapter Three

 

Deftly, Bags navigated through a series of quick track switches toward a little-known passage through the Plate. Kieler watched his friend enjoying the feel of the nimble craft. They shared a few moments of elated silence, but as that elation slowly ebbed, Kieler realized he probably wouldn’t be seeing his friend and former subordinate for a long time.

Gently Kieler doffed his uniform jacket and wrapped it around his shoulder. It was still seeping, but the wound was amazingly straight, as if cut with a surgeon’s scalpel. A deeper hit would have easily killed or dismembered. He shuddered, then winced with the pain of movement.

Letting the pain subside, he spoke as the craft hissed quietly in the bottom of the track. “You know, Bags, I’m leaving tomorrow on this mission. I’ll be gone a long time if things go well; permanently if they don’t.” He let that sink in. “You’re captain of Slink Squad now. You’re going to have to teach one of the guys to do the driving of this little beast while you do the leading.”

Looking sidelong at Kieler, Bags frowned. “Gotta spoil the fun, eh?”

They slowed further and Kieler went on. “Yeah, well, we gotta remember why we fight, each of us. And you have to remember the motivation of your men, not just yours.”

His frown turning to a deep scowl, Bags replied, “Mine I’ll never forget. Someone steals your wife—” Kieler could almost hear Bag’s teeth grinding. He hated to remind Bags of ugly memories, but those memories kept a man focused. “I suppose everyone has some reason for hating the highborns.”

“Some reasons aren’t as bitter. Take Caprice; he never knew his parents. He’s just lost. As far as anyone knows he was born under the Plate.”

“Yeah,” Bags agreed. “He’s reckless. No family. Doesn’t really care about living or dying, just what he can get that day.”

“Yes, but Bags he does have a family now.”

Bags mused on that as they slowed to a crawl and pulled into an abandoned warehouse. “Us.”

Kieler smiled at him. “Remember that and your whole squad will remember it.”

They both jumped out and opened a grate in the floor. Within seconds the two raiders had disappeared from Avertori and were descending through the Plate.

This entrance was one of about thirty Kieler knew of, most of them well hidden. The two men donned their masks and moved quickly through massive conduits, rubble heaps, and tunnels; always heading down. Kieler led almost without thinking, winding through the maze in which he’d grown up. He unsheathed the luzhril shard he’d used on the raid and lit their way. It didn’t pass unremembered that when he had found this passage as a teenager, he only had a jar of light lugs. The luzhril on the rod had been given him by Movus much later.

 They leaned sideways as they scooted under the slope of a fallen slab, then climbed up a rock heap and half-slid down the other side. A broken tower angled down, forming a long part of their path, but before the end they crawled through a shattered window and into a hollowed-out space that narrowed into another tunnel that had obviously been dug out to allow men to squeeze through.

His shoulder throbbed but keeping pressure on it minimized blood loss and Kieler knew he would be all right. To properly treat the wound, they would need the medical supplies in Movus’ quarters. He always had the best.

Once the two men turned into the main tunnels, they encountered other residents of the underground city. Though some still kept time and schedule with the world above, many did not, going about their business at unusual hours. Their passing was acknowledged with a glance or a nod, but Kieler knew the insignia on their masks and even the masks themselves evoked respect and a touch of fear. Kieler had earned the insignia he wore over the right eye-hole of his mask. The purpose with which they moved and the blood on Kieler’s clothes further increased the distance of those not in the Coin.

Some couldn’t help passing close. A grimy man, sweating copiously, pushed a three-wheeled cart up the slope Kieler and Bags were coming down. His face was set and to stop would be to lose upward momentum. As he passed, the front wheel hit a rut in the rough surface and the cart tipped. Kieler and Bags both reacted to steady it, but the motion sent a blaze of light out the top of the high-sided cart.

Light lugs. The cart was packed with various containers, from glass jars to rough urns squirming with the bio-luminescent insects largely used for portable light beneath the Plate.

This man had worked hard to collect such numbers of the pests. To lose them in a tip-over would have been a financial disaster.

But his “smile” of appreciation to the two Coin operatives was nothing more than a scowl and a thankful nod.

In the world above the Plate, especially at the Cortatti Estate, the streets were smooth and rubble would have been cleared. But here, both the street, the sides of the street, and the ceiling of every tunnel were carved out of rubble. If he hadn’t just been at the immaculately tended gardens of the Cortattis, Kieler wouldn’t have even noticed. Growing up in these wasted ruins of a city—a city long dead before Avertori was built—rubble was Kieler’s normal.

The end of this wider tunnel opened onto the perimeter of a space so large it had its own ambient light, albeit weak. Kieler and Bags skirted the edge of the Karst Borough. Noise from commerce, from hundreds of thousands of people living in these ruins, filled the air.

The Plate separating above from below spanned the entire Isle of Threes on which Avertori stood. Why it had been built, Kieler could only guess. Under the Plate, the majority of the population existed mainly in these various boroughs. People settled in these larger hollows out of social need and even in Kieler’s brief years the population had grown as Avertori above declined. The largest and busiest of these boroughs was Karst.

From the low path on which they trod, they could see little of what was sometimes called the Karst Plain, referring to its relatively wide expanse. But their world was also deep; deep beyond knowledge. Kieler wondered if even Movus (who still seemed like the parent who knew everything) had explored the full depth of this dark netherworld. Most exiles took up residence as close to the surface as possible in any area free of rubble. Karst was so wide and open that the Plate itself roofed it.

Kieler and Bags reached the hollowed-out corridor leading to Movus’ home under Karst. It was a quiet corridor, with Movus’ place being the only residence. His home had the added privilege of a solid stone door with a magnetic lock similar to the one on the Cortatti library, except this one had no glass to break. The two successful raiders knocked, received no reply, and Kieler used his key to let them in, eager to share their success with Kieler’s mentor. But as they entered Movus’ library, they realized the head of their intelligence network was, as usual, not home.

With hardly a word, Kieler pushed aside a spread of plans on a polished stone table, and lay down, unwrapping the crude dressing from his pierced shoulder as he did.

“Leave that to me,” Bags rumbled at him. “Leaders are always the worst patients.”

“I thought doctors were the worst patients.”

Bags’ only response was a short grunt as he opened one of many cabinets and withdrew a cleaning solvent and a ceramic bottle hand-labeled, “Bio-salve”. This was not entirely an unfamiliar process. Other jobs had found them injured worse.

As Bags cleaned his shoulder, Kieler tried to lie still despite his racing mind. He wondered at the bottle of salve. He had innocently asked for some from an Avertoric doctor after one of his incursions above the Plate. The doc had no clue what he was talking about. Yes, Movus knew stuff.

A knock at the door, ignored three times, finally bugged Bags enough to go see who it was. Though he couldn’t see the door from the library, Kieler could tell the man pushed his way past Bags despite insistent protests.

“I’ll throw you out!” Bags said as the stooped man shuffled into the library.

Kieler leaned his head back on a stack of papers and sniffed the air. “What’s that smell?”

Over the man’s prog-like snort, Bags muttered, “Dirt, filth and swamp-water.”

In a way, Zroom, the room’s new and unwanted visitor, had an advantage against Bags’ hugely superior muscle: he looked like a decrepit old man. It was hard to hit him and feel good about it.

“Stay away from my patient!” Bags commanded. “You’ll contaminate the wound.”

With an indistinct chuff, Zroom did stay back just far enough for Bags to work. Zroom was one of the under-Plate’s few farmers, raising an exotic crop that was actually quite profitable: truffles. Most of his crop he smuggled through the Plate and sold to House addicts at exorbitant prices. Some of his unusual fungi were said to have psychotropic properties that clarified one’s thinking. Nevertheless, they grew in the wettest, rottenest, smelliest parts of the underground. His infused aroma did not add to his already scarce popularity.

“What do you want Zroom?” Kieler asked, not giving him the respect of looking at him. “Come to tell us how to run the world again?”

“Yup,” said the man without a hint of doubt. “You need it. You go off and get yourself stabbed on some reckless raid and you don’t have an ounce of common sense about how to run a new government should you actually manage to destroy the old one.”

His heavy lids and saggy, sallow face contradicted his confident tirade. But this was not a new argument. Since both Kieler and Bags ignored him while Bags doused a piece of gauze with the salve, Zroom continued, this time with questions.

“What did you do? Raid Cortatti headquarters? Are you as daft as I’ve been asserting for all these years?”

Bags shot him an enraged look and had he not been applying the balm to Kieler’s shoulder at that very moment, he probably would have grabbed Zroom by the neck. “How do you know what we’ve been doing, spy?”

A smile that looked more like a scowl cracked the dirty man’s face. “And you’re our intelligence squad? We’re in worse trouble than I’ve been grumbling about.”

Bags’ free hand swiped around in an annoyed attempt to backhand him. Zroom had moved two steps away to avoid just such a lashing.

“Blood-stained Cortatti uniform on the ground isn’t much of a hint, is it?”

“Bags…” Kieler warned. “Anything you say gives him more ammunition.”

A rumble like a grevon growl sounded deep in Bags’ chest. But Zroom had moved to the medicine cabinet and was examining the contents with an appreciative look on his flabby face.

“Stop snooping,” Kieler said mildly. “Movus finds out you touched anything and he’ll have fifty of us fighting each other for who gets to kill you.”

Zroom turned and nodded. “My point made. If you succeed you get to be puppet EC. Movus jerks your strings. And fifty grevons fight over the scraps. What a country.”

Kieler winced despite the salve’s amazing ability to soothe even as it healed. He winced because though he knew that what he was doing was necessary, he did wonder how the end result would be better. Zroom had hit a nerve.

Interjecting for his patient, Bags asked through clenched teeth. “What do you want Zroom and how can we get rid of you?”

“I want to shape this world. You need my wisdom and the only way you’ll get it is if I cram it into your over-muscled heads.”

At this Kieler cracked a smile. “Why not use your irresistible charisma Zroom?”

Another snort. “That’s you’re department, Sparks. I know you’re smart. Bags less so but not entirely stupid. You should listen to me.”

“Why?” Both said simultaneously.

“Because not everyone agrees with the Coin. Because you don’t know what you’re doing. And because I know how to organize working systems. Profitable, organized, sustainable working systems. You two just know how to break stuff and blow stuff up.”

Neither responded to the muck-stained farmer. Bags was now sewing, and that did hurt.

Eyes closed, Kieler muttered, “I did break a lot of stuff tonight Bags.”

Even though he was concentrating on sewing Kieler’s wound closed, Bags replied, “and Caprice got to blow some stuff up…” Pretending to acquiesce to Zroom’s superior intelligence, Bags heaved a melodramatic sigh. “Well, you’re right again Zroom. You can go now.”

Through the condescension, Kieler noted with pride that Bags, despite his annoyance with Zroom, was quite gently sewing his shoulder while patiently bearing Zroom’s abrasive presence.

“Revolution requires forethought, during-thought, and afterthought. All those involve thought!” Zroom’s tone was acidic. “You just rush into action, stirring up the most violent house on Zotikas with no thinking about the result. We need to organize a government now. We need to practice governing now. We have the perfect chance to create a free-market system of equal opportunity down here now, and aside from the Coin, we’re in total anarchy.”

“A market system that allows you to make even more money, Zroom, without risking your neck smuggling,” Bags poked.

Color rose in Zroom’s face, making him look a little like the purplish truffles he sold. “Who else in this hell-hole knows anything about systems! Sparks doesn’t remember anything other than waifing around these tunnels trying to survive. And you, Bags are a bottom-beaten lackey who toadied for Telander until he woke you up by rap—“

So much for patience. Bags’ huge fist swung around like a runaway powercoach. Nevertheless, it was astonishing how fast the bedraggled looking farmer could move when he realized he had overstepped his provocation. There were no good-byes. Zroom ran for the door and out. With jaws so tightly clenched he could have ground off the tops of his teeth, Bags returned to Kieler, who was nauseous with the pain of having two stitches ripped out by Bags’ outburst.

Bags’ temper cooled instantly when he saw what he had done to his friend. “I’m sorry, Sparks,” he muttered. Instantly his eyes were wet. “I’m sorry. That prog— My Eznea—”

In silence Bags finished the rest of the procedure and bound up Kieler’s shoulder.

Kieler looked away from the operation now, his stomach not quite settled. He found distraction in a globe of Zotikas—their world—that Movus had evidently found in the depths of the rubble. The ancient globe spun perpetually but was not physically supported in its gimbals. Bemused by pain, he became simultaneously aware of the sheer mass of wrecked city around him. This private library, filled with ancient texts and artifacts, was itself surrounded by rubble; above, around and beneath.       

An arm’s length in front of him, the vast lands of Zotikas passed in and out of view. Avertori came round into sight, sitting on the island in the center of the world; its unique position at the convergence of three continents and three seas. To the northeast, Ardan; to the southeast, rugged Coprackus; and to the northwest, the fertile plains of Govian.

But the place names on this globe were not the same. They were from a different time, long forgotten. And this library and the rubble around it gave testimony to the greater civilization that had once thrived here.

“Can you imagine how huge the city of the Dead Ones must have been?” Kieler mused.

Bags took a moment to reply. He was nearly finished playing surgeon and his fatigue seemed to be catching up with him as his emotional energy ebbed. “Hmm. Couldn’t have been much bigger than Avertori is now. Our city covers the whole island and more.”

Frowning, Kieler disagreed. “I think it was bigger—not in width, but height. Just looking at how much rubble there is, it must have reached far into the sky. It must have been a truly great civilization.”

Bags snorted. “Still fell. We live in their trash.”

Kieler shrugged. “Mmm. True, but those times had to be better than these. We’ve got to make this world better…”

Bags said nothing and Kieler guessed they were both thinking of past pain. They weren’t the only ones. Bleakness and pain seemed to be engulfing their world. Every person under the Plate had a story of heartbreak.

Kieler shifted his attention to the gimbals around the globe. Battered but functional, there was little left of the embossed inscription. In the flickering red light of the room, he read what remained: While we live, let us live. Movus had suggested it as the motto of the Coin, and the subtly rebellious message was quickly adopted by the underworld organization.

Slumping into a thickly padded chair, Bags closed his eyes.

Kieler rose slowly and turned from the globe to pace slowly around the library. He strode beneath the vaulted stone ceiling toward the center of the triangular room. All three walls were stacked top to bottom with artifacts of such a wide variety that he had difficulty imagining how Movus could have collected them all in one lifetime.

In a corner was a simple spear that bore no markings save a single inscription: Ride fast. Fly true. Spears hadn’t been used in nearly a thousand years. Where did he get that? On a shelf near the ancient weapon stood a cloudy frame with a three dimensional image of an island burned into the mist. That technology was a complete mystery, not of this era either.

Kieler stopped next to the most prominent of all the collected artifacts: a large glowing sphere of red luzhril on a pedestal. The sphere supplied light and some heat to the subterranean library. It was not as bright as normal white luzhril, but it’s rare, burgundy color probably made it even more valuable than the Cortatti’s library globe.

Turning back to the table they had commandeered as an operating slab, he shuffled through the two years’ worth of work that lay stacked and spread before him. Even now he resisted reviewing the documents one more time. The red glow of the sphere and something about the table and its one empty chair brought back a memory.

It was the memory of himself, sitting in that same chair; he must have been about sixteen or seventeen. He was looking up at Movus, who was doing what Kieler had just been doing, standing and staring into the swirling opalescence of the red sphere. Kieler had asked, “May I ask you, why did you have to leave the city above?”

Not replying immediately, something between a smile and a grimace played on his face. “No, you may not,” Movus replied definitively. His jet black, straight hair reflected the deep red light, and his very light brown eyes, usually the color of sun-ripened grain common to those of Govian descent, shone with the sphere’s light. He looked down at Kieler. “Suffice to say I was treated horribly. I went from prophet to pariah, shunned.”

Though he said no more, Kieler could read deep pain in Movus’ light eyes, a pain he felt keenly himself. Never could Kieler forget the deaths of his parents, or the highborns who caused it. The reflected orb-light danced with the intense fire of revenge. The look frightened Kieler, though he was already a savvy young man.

Nodding, Kieler returned to the present, and realized he’d memorized every detail of the plan on the papers in front of him. It was the first major step of revolution; a revolution designed to end his world’s pain and bring purpose to his own suffering. Obviously it would bring some solace to his mentor’s hidden grieving as well. That the smelly, arrogant farmer Zroom wasn’t a privileged member of those making things happen—that was just as well.

Kieler turned and once again stared into the warmth and swirling luminescence of the unique red lamp, visualizing in his mind exactly how their plan would manifest.

The civilization of Avertori was ruled by the prime houses, dynasties that had hoarded power for generations. Kieler and Movus had worked out a plan to gain Kieler a strategic position amongst them, a position to strike from.

When House Ortessi had been destroyed twenty years ago in a “mysterious” fire, one body was never found: that of the child Orlazrus, the youngest son. Movus had used his contacts to drop hints that the now grown Orlazrus was planning his return.

Kieler picked up the sigil from the table and twisted it in his hand, his fingers between the points of the star. The Ortessi Sigil would give his claim great credibility. Only Feleanna Cortatti would know the truth and she wouldn’t be able to say anything without incriminating her own house.

Once rumors had spread, it had been relatively simple to get the other houses fighting over the “privilege” of introducing Orlazrus at court. But spreading rumors had been much simpler than his next task: showing up to the party alive.

“So where’s Movus?” Bags asked groggily, not opening his eyes.

“I never know,” Kieler replied. “Running the largest spy network on the planet; it’s probably best he stays invisible.”

“Even to you? But he practically raised you.”

Kieler shrugged and walked back to the spinning globe of Zotikas. “I never even saw much of him growing up. He showed up to guide me and teach me: how to observe, how to fight… to dance.”

Without turning, Kieler saw Bags crack open one eye. “To dance? Why?”

Kieler smiled. “If you’re a good spy captain, maybe he’ll teach you someday too.”

Letting out a grunt, Bags closed his eyes again. Within moments his breathing evened out into a light snore.

“We’re doing something, Bags,” Kieler whispered excitedly, not really wanting to wake him. “I’m actually point man for something that will make a difference in our world.” He reached out and put a hand on the globe to stop it, but the slippery sphere just kept spinning.

[] Chapter Four

 

It was a pit.

The nethercity was a big, dark hole in the ground where people had thrown the junk of an entire ruined civilization. Kieler stood alone atop an ancient mountain of debris and looked out over Karst. From this vantage he could see the dim outlines of the scattered dwellings below, thousands of hovels of arranged rubble lit by the faint glow of luminescent lichen. Very few were lucky enough to own even a splinter of luzhril. Jars of light lugs bobbed in lines indicating the movement of people through the ever-dark city.

Rising up from amongst the faint lights of humanity were darker shadows of various shapes and heights. Some of these “mountains” reached all the way to the underside of the Plate and indicated a portal through which those above had dumped refuse until they had literally piled it to the top.

The middle of the Karst Borough was interrupted by a gash of even deeper darkness. The enormous chasm, unimaginatively called the Abyss, separated the east side of the sunless city from the west. The only connection was a half-mile section of fallen tower serving as a bridge, though by going out of the way, one could skirt the ends of the gap.

Above, Kieler felt the oppressive weight of the Plate sealing the city like the lid of an enormous coffin. Spiking through the Plate at regular intervals, except for where the expanse of the Abyss dropped into nothingness, were dozens of immense, black columns. These pillars reached from the bedrock far below to the highest levels of the city above. It was these timeless structures, built by a civilization long gone, that formed the cornerstones upon which the great trade houses of the current era had fashioned their Rei-lit metropolis.

But the people below, subsisting on the shadowy plain beneath the Plate, were Kieler’s friends, outcasts, just like him. Rejected by the major houses, they fled here, or if they could make it, to some remote outland location beyond the reach of the Omeron. At least they weren’t criminals bound for Feleanna’s arena.

This city is reversed, he thought. The random specks of light and life below are like stars, and the unseen, shallow, metal Plate above like a reflection-less sea.

Curiously, as he looked up at the bottom of the Plate, in one area he saw faint but definite points of light, different from the weak aura of lichen. It was like a cluster of a half dozen stars. Odd, but not Kieler’s concern as he mustered himself to leave the dim underworld.

Dropping his gaze from the wispy light, Kieler wondered if he would ever see this shadow-city again, his home for most of his life.

After the raid on the Cortatti compound, he had napped, packed, and finally donned his disguise to climb to this point. Behind him, away from the slope of rubbish leading down to Karst, stood a heavy stone arch, marking the beginning of the main path out of the nethercity.

Years ago, Kieler had made this trip in reverse with his father. In self-imposed exile, his father had led him through the Dragon’s Gate, down the crumbling, pillared path and under the Arch of Darkness to dwell in the city of night. Most, like his father, never saw the light of Rei again.

Kieler remembered the fear of that moment, standing in this same spot, a child of eight, clinging to his father’s side. His fear now was just as real, but this time it was a result of his own choice to leave.

Growing up here had been a depressing adventure. Kieler couldn’t just sit by and watch his father work obsessively on his processes and engines. So he explored. He knew this place. He knew more of this labyrinth of tunnels, passages, crawlspaces, sewers, nooks, hideouts and boroughs than almost anyone alive. This had been his perpetually gloomy playground.

More than once he had become lost deep down below Avertori, to the point of thinking he would never find his way back.

Yet he always had. And he had made a life for himself here. After his father was killed, Movus gave Kieler opportunity and direction through the Coin, despite the infrequency of his actual presence. Kieler had striven for advancement and risen quickly in the ranks.

Now he was leaving his life underground and taking on a new life above, a life not his own, and the life, he thought wryly, of a supposed dead man.

He was point man for a revolution. Most people, below and above, had little hope or purpose in their lives. He had both, and it made the prize worth the risks.

He took a last look at the faint sparks of light below, lights that represented people he knew, and cared about. That he was fighting for them, and the respect of Movus, made him proud.

Given it was a pit—it was still home.

Kieler turned and stepped through the Arch.

Before him lay a low-ceilinged subterranean road that led to the Dragon’s Gate, a portal between the cities of light and dark that opened to a public square in a rough part of Avertori. As the most well-known entrance, those who lived in the light often threatened their small children with it. “You keep up like that, young man, and I’ll send you down the Dragon’s throat!”

Kieler didn’t want to use this gate. He would have preferred to sneak through one of the most hidden access portals, but he knew he probably wasn’t the only one to know even that entrance. And now, as Zroom had pointed out, they had sparked the wrath of the Cortatti’s: every gate would be watched. It would be better if he exited into a public place. At least he’d have a chance of getting on his way and shaking off sure pursuit.

The road upward must have been grand thousands of years ago. The fluted columns, now mere stubs, lined the pebbled path every few steps. What esteemed property it had announced, Kieler had no idea. Everything below whispered of something lost long past.

He passed a splintery wood counter to the right of the path between two columns. Behind the counter, in the gloom, was a shadowy crack where the proprietor of this strange general store lived. Al, who Kieler now knew well, sold necessities to the exiles as they filed down this wrecked promenade to their new home.

On that very counter, Al had thunked the first jar of light lugs Kieler had ever seen, frightening them into light. They were a necessity to be sure, but they were also a rampant pest, easily caught once you knew what you were doing. Kieler’s father had paid a premium price for those bugs many years ago.

But now, the fact that Al wasn’t tending store at the moment made Kieler’s journey up even lonelier. He took a deep breath and continued climbing the desolate road toward Avertori and the light of the fading day.

The broken columns on either side of him echoed with greatness and disaster. Beyond the columns lurked dark niches and a shadowed silence—deep and heavy. As the road climbed toward the surface, Kieler could feel the Plate pressing down on him.

His confidence and resolve hardened as he strode up the path through the rubbish-packed landscape. His first identity was Geren, a street-wise magal loader. His face was hidden in fake, unkempt facial hair and he wore rough work clothes. It was a persona he’d used many times in his dealings for the Coin.

What little light there was continued to dim. He could barely see the bottom layer of the Plate as he ascended through it. A vast truss-work crisscrossed between the top and bottom layer. Unexpectedly, Kieler heard a rapid flutter close to his head. He spun to look, but saw nothing. Just jitters, he thought, but quickened his pace nonetheless.

The last few steps brought him beneath the huge trapezoidal hatch in the upper Plate; the Dragon’s Gate. A rust-roughened lever half the length of his body extended from one of the metal trusses. Using both hands, Kieler slowly heaved back on the lever, the hatch above him groaning like a wounded beast and tilting downward into the dim space between the upper and lower Plate.

When a crack of light appeared along the seam, Kieler stopped.

A small brown trennek, a bird common to most of Zotikas, flew up and landed on a thin piece of metal near the crack. It looked back at Kieler as if commanding, Open the door.

Kieler was surprised. Birds were rare in the nethercity. It looked at him steadily, and Kieler got the distinct impression that it was waiting for him to say something. It reminded him of another animal—a similar look. He thought, and the memory came back to him: the brown slink.

One time, when his father was still alive, Kieler had been exploring. Cave-ins were common; but this time he was squeezing through a narrow tunnel and dislodged a chunk of concrete. The whole mass to his right shifted, sliding sideways into him and pinning him against the left wall. He could go neither forward nor back. With a jar of light lugs on a necklace, he could look around but could not get leverage on the wall of debris to dig out. Ahead of him he’d heard a scurrying sound and looked to see a brown slink about nine inches tall, standing on its hind legs on a shelf of broken material.

It had cocked its head, inquisitively, much like the trennek now, waiting. Slinks were scavengers and normally stayed away. But young Kieler, trapped like one of his light lugs, was very scared of this confident looking rodent.

For over an hour, it just waited, watching, as Kieler bloodied his hands digging out packed rubble from behind him until finally, body bruised and fingers raw, he squeezed forward and toward the creature and freedom.

As the boy-Kieler had moved toward the rodent, the slink had looked him in the eye, looked away, looked back, then dropped to all fours and slithered away.

This bird was the same way. Many things on Zotikas, and especially under it, were ancient and mysterious. Kieler, for all his love of learning how things worked, didn’t pretend to understand everything.

“Well, trennek,” he now spoke to the bird. “We’ll both find freedom on the other side of this door. Let’s go.” He hauled back the lever the rest of the way, and the gate pivoted downward, becoming a ramp. Counterweights rose along a truss-piece next to him, offsetting the weight of the massive gate.

He squinted and his eyes adjusted. Then he walked up the ramp into Avertori.

The bird fluttered around his head and up into the shadows above the Plate. As he followed it with his eyes, Kieler noted how dimly Rei penetrated these lower levels. Even so, it was much brighter than the preternatural light of the nethercity. The winter solstice and the lateness of the afternoon cast the lower city into a prolonged twilight.

He stood in the middle of a shabby plaza in The Glums, the lowest section of Avertori built directly on the Plate. Party-goers were in full force and even this dreary plaza was already busy. That was why Kieler had chosen this place; if the Cortattis or anyone else had hired mercenaries to kill him, they’d have to sort him out of a crowd first. He grinned to himself that agents of the prime houses rarely ventured under the Plate while “criminals” like himself came up more than occasionally.

One reason was that agents of the Coin dissuaded intrusion into the shadowy realm below, often violently. Besides, there was nothing to gain from Karst’s poverty-infested populace. But there was another reason as well. The nethercity wasn’t always as “tame” as it was now. Wild animals and other creatures had reign over the darker regions below the Plate until even a hundred years ago. Kieler knew the stories of Devolay and Tesaran, heroes of that era that had killed many strange creatures or driven them deeper into regions not inhabited by humankind. As things above continued to deteriorate, more people were exiled below and sheer need raised up men to conquer the regions closer to the Plate.

But though the creatures had died, the rumors did not. And residents of the light were easily frightened by the dark.

Kieler turned and pulled another rust-begrimed lever, raising the hatch and eliciting another groan. It closed with a heavy thump. Then he surveyed the surrounding buildings, looking for the creatures Feleanna may have loosed—the low-life mercenaries with no cause but a few dras.

The Isle of Threes had little real vegetation; instead it was covered with a forest of colossal buildings. Kieler had only been in a real forest once, on the continent of Govian to the northwest. It was two years before his mother died and he still remembered the immensity of the towering trees, magnified by his six-year-old perception.

These man-made skytowers needed no magnification. The tallest columns thrust upward through the Plate and soared over two hundred stories into the sky. From here, however, the sky was mostly occluded by the myriad skyways and elevated plazas that formed the canopy of the city. A few determined shafts of sunlight slanted across the gloom, illuminating the ubiquitous dust of Avertori’s lowest level.

Like layers of moss and mold at the bases of trees, dreary shops and tenement houses huddled around the bases of the high rises. These scabby structures were filled with millions of residents preparing for the New Year’s celebration and a night of revelry. For those who lived this low, the celebration meant nothing more than drinking into oblivion and whatever other debauchery they could indulge in.

As Kieler progressed higher, there would be many other varieties of entertainment, both finer and coarser.

He moved to one side of the plaza and his eyes were drawn to a tower shooting up some distance away. This tower, its three-spired top blocked from view by a tangle of skyways and suspended terraces, supported the palace of the Executive Chair. Tonight, every family with power would be celebrating the New Year in that palace by special invitation.

Kieler had written his own invitation.

From the darkened alcoves of the surrounding buildings, shadows stirred to life, roused by the opening of the Dragon’s Gate. Kieler’s identity as Geren was probably known to these watchers, and his disguise should abate their desire to kill him. After quick consideration, he decided he could use their pursuit to wrap up a few loose ends. As he headed purposefully for a narrow alley, three of the shadows resolved into the forms of seedy men.

To them, Geren was a black market business lackey, supposedly a lowly magal worker by day, but well connected. And that was Kieler’s cover, a man who chummed the water so that bigger fish could make deals and move contraband outside the official channels of Avertori’s controlled economy. He was small fry, tolerated, but always tailed because of the people he connected. There was no way of knowing whether they would follow him because he was Geren, or because they somehow suspected his real identity.

The constricting space of the alley allowed him to exactly mark the three men following him. Two were short and the third was of medium height and far less nervous.

Kieler cursed. Bottom feeders. He expected company but losing three tails might be a problem.

The curving alley led to the crusty base of the nearest tower. Once an elaborately decorated entryway to a posh hotel, the heavy door was now coated with grime. Inside the formerly grand lobby were many establishments considered disreputable, even in this part of The Glums. As Kieler walked across the age-worn black and white tile floor, he glanced up into the hollow center of the tower. Stretching up into the darkness was a shaft ringed by six broken-down elevators. It was like looking up the barrel of a maggun.

After striding directly through the center of the bank of elevators, Kieler walked boldly into The Bottom of the Barrel, a pub with a high opinion of its lowly status. He had to walk around the smashed shell of a fallen elevator car, showcased as the centerpiece of the pub’s twisted décor. He moved directly to Ogard, the bar-keep and a regular informant for all sides of the black-market trade.

“G’day, O’!” Kieler greeted Ogard. Being loyal to everybody (and therefore no one), Ogard was neither friend nor enemy. Both knew their roles and played them well. Ogard poured a drink, and Kieler threw him a coin.

“G’day, Geren,” Ogard returned. “You look as though you’re about a weighty errand on this day of light-hearted drunkenness.”

“Perceptive as always, Ogard. I’m headin’ out. I gotta take a trip to Govian to see about getting a supply chain set up. We found a group of farmers willing to trade off the grid.” It was a total lie, but Kieler just wanted everyone to know he was going to be gone for a while.

Ogard nodded, making his mental notes so he could pass it on.

“Anyway, the goons are going to miss me.” The three tails had entered and stood by the bar rather conspicuously. “My assignment is remote and my little excursion will take some months.”

This was news indeed to Ogard, who showed some surprise. “Look on it as a holiday.”

“That’s how I figure it,” Kieler nodded. “I’ve never been out of Avertori before.” Though if things go as planned, I’ll still be here, Kieler thought. Just not in The Glums.

 “I’ll pass on the tale, Geren, true or no,” Ogard said with a wink.

Kieler regarded him with a smile. Ogard was a good lot. He knew the game, managing to stay in business, stay alive and stay in the good graces of both the familial goons and the goons like Geren. Kieler decided he might actually miss him.

Kieler leaned in confidentially. “If you can hold on to that news till tomorrow, I’d appreciate it. They don’t like my sort traveling out of sight.” He slipped Ogard a few silver ril, the more valued currency of the black market. It was considered an insult to use the paper dras, the official currency of Avertori, for a bribe.

Ogard nodded, quickly removing the coins from sight. It was generous for such a short delay.

As Kieler looked at Ogard, he realized how many people in his usual haunts he wouldn’t be seeing for a while, if ever.

The awkward pause was noticed and prompted a vague though genuine smile by the barkeep, “Fare you well then!”

Nodding, Kieler turned and made his way out of the pub in such a way as to keep the crashed elevator car in between him and his unwanted companions. By doubling back, Kieler didn’t give them the chance to talk to Ogard. They had to follow him now or lose him.

The Bottom of the Barrel was actually on the ground floor of one of the taller towers in Avertori, reaching some hundred and fifty stories. Kieler noted the irony of this: it would have been fastest to go straight up, but the elevator car in the middle of the pub was in no condition to make the trip. Typical of lower Avertori.

Residents who could afford to live on the upper levels saw little value in maintaining easy vertical access. As a result Kieler’s route would have to be highly circuitous.

Now that the news had been planted that he would be gone a while, he needed to get gone. He needed to cut off his tail.

He walked briskly to the nearest InterTram station. He had to laugh at the agents following him. They wanted to be discreet, to blend in, but all other foot traffic was exiting the station to join the festivities in the plaza. They stood out like new guys, which they were, except for the third one. On another night he might have played a little game of chasey with them, but tonight… he just had to dump them.

He walked onto the tram and stood next to the door.

Two of them followed him aboard and took up separate positions on the tram, looking like perfect strangers. They had even chosen spots as physically far apart as possible. More experienced agents would have realized the conspicuous situation and pretended to be friends. The odd agent didn’t board but stood a step outside the doors as nonchalantly as if this wasn’t the train he was waiting for. Kieler frowned internally.

Just as the doors closed, Kieler jumped off the tram and let the other two embarrassed agents enjoy their ride to the next station. It wasn’t a subtle move, but Geren was not subtle.

The train started off and Kieler allowed himself the pleasure of looking back through the windows at the men scrambling for the door. Discarding the masquerade of pretending not to notice his pursuers, Kieler turned and looked the remaining man up and down, outwardly scowling now. At first the man seemed to be pretending to ignore him, but then Kieler got the distinct impression that the man was bored and genuinely uninterested in what Kieler did.

The man struck him as odd, though Kieler couldn’t place exactly why. His clothes were old, though of good quality and tailoring. He was shorter than Kieler, and his ears and nose were larger than normal. Though Kieler had never seen him before, the man’s jet-black hair obliquely reminded Kieler of Movus.

Kieler stroked his fake beard and considered. This was inconvenient. He had to lose this guy before he changed his identity. Then he could pursue his goal on the higher levels of the city without unwanted company.

Striding over to the tram going the opposite direction, Kieler pretended to be unphased. But the cards were on the table, and right now the black-haired man had the better hand. Again Kieler thought this would have been entertaining if the stakes were not desperately high. He would not get a chance like this until the next New Year. No, he thought again, the opportunity wouldn’t even be there next year.

Kieler and Movus had painstakingly prepared the ruling houses for his arrival by implanting false credentials with key people. The rumors were peaked; the stage was set. This was his only shot.

[] Chapter Five

 

Velirith stood at a bay window in the top floor apartment of Vel-Taradan and looked out over Plaza Floreneva. The triangular central plaza reminded her of the Theater Tri back home in Velakun. There were many differences, but both plazas were the center of social activity in their respective cities.

Plaza Floreneva was surrounded by three tiers of arched colonnades which provided covered walkways to the myriad of shops and cafés surrounding the plaza. Many of these were closed now, victims of the various monopolies enforced by the trade houses.

In each corner of the triangular plaza stood a magnificent structure with layered accents of a style that was both dramatic and suggestive of indulgence beyond mere functionality. The Arena, the cathedral and the Oraflora Theater; all were built to bring people together. She noticed, not for the first time, her inward revulsion and intentional ignoring of the Arena.

She forced her gaze east, up the Stair to the left, and sighed a small sigh as she looked upon the claw-like spires that pierced Garrist Ring and supported the Executive Chair’s overdone palace.

That palace was her destination this evening. That her habiliments not only made a subtle statement of confidence but were practical as well, placed her in the position of being ready early, allowing her this time for reflection. She felt a strange mix of nervousness, peace and excitement in the unhurried interval before heading up the Stair to the Gala.

As majestic as the view was, she closed her eyes and shut it out. She needed some introspection before facing the people she would face tonight and doing the things she would do.

Concentrating, she pictured herself, dressed as she was for the New Year’s Eve Gala. Velirith had prepared for this evening’s party in a very different way than just the primp, preen, and pomp of most of the “noble” ladies. Certainly she had dressed well, wearing the silver-lined, deep blue of House Vel. In an unusual twist of creativity, she had chosen a very feminine adaptation of Vel’s traditionally male dress uniform. The long coat preserved some of the flow of a dress, emphasizing her form nicely, but pants gave her more freedom of movement. She wore her dark hair a bit short, curving around to frame her oval face.

I look good, she decided internally, smiling to herself. It was an unselfconscious, non-arrogant assessment. She had, she thought, a more handsome than delicate beauty. And she was happy with that.

She focused further, imagining looking into her own reflective, silver eyes. She noted the smile that played around the edges. She took measure of what she saw; humor, judgment… mischief.

I don’t like the judgment, she concluded, resolving that was something she could change. But I like the mischief. And she grinned a beautiful smile of straight white teeth.

Mischief. Usually Velirith despised these parties, but she had to admit, she was more excited about tonight’s New Year’s Gala than any she had ever attended. It wasn’t the fancy clothes, or the fine food, or the “important” people. Certainly every family with any economic influence would be in attendance. But Velirith detested these shows of narcissism.

 Her excitement had begun two days earlier with a visit from Moshalli MgFellis. Moshalli was the same age as Velirith. The two had played together as young girls when Velator, Velirith’s father, had spent much more time in Avertori.

But Moshalli’s house was not of the same class as Velirith’s. That didn’t matter to Velirith or her father, but it did matter to many. MgFellis had served the House of Ek as a proximal house for hundreds of years. When House Ek was elevated to Executive Chair, leader of the Omeron of Zotikas, the MgFellis house was, in its own way, elevated as well. Moshalli was unashamedly proud of the fact that her family lived in the tower quarters below the Executive Chair’s palace and was always well informed of the happenings in the palace and throughout Avertori.

So two days before tonight’s party, Velirith had been writing a play. She was stuck. It seemed to lack the heart of true Theatre Velaki. The script lay spread out on the low table before the bay window overlooking Avertori’s Grand Stair. The same window before which she now stood, playing back the scene.

Moshalli had surprised Velirith, visiting her chambers in the Vel apartments at the top of Vel-Taradan. The three tower complex of Vel-Taradan served as the ambassadorial and economic headquarters of the Vel family in Avertori. Though very comfortable, Velirith much preferred their home in Velakun, deep within the mountains of Ardan to the northeast.

“Velirith, it’s so wonderful to see you again!” Moshalli had bubbled, embracing her. Her excitement was genuine, Velirith decided, if not a bit exaggerated. Moshalli liked associating with those considered influential. Being able to say that she used to play Heroes and Kovars with the only heir of the house of Vel and that they were “best friends” elevated her status—at least in her own eyes. Velirith invited her playmate of youth over to the window.

Velirith smiled at her. “Good to see you too, Moshalli.” And it was, even if Velirith was a bit annoyed to have her creativity interrupted. She looked into the round, plain face of her friend. The eye make-up was new and Velirith saw that Moshalli was going for a more exotic look.

“It’s been, what, two years? Last year’s party I think you were sick?”

Velirith laughed. “No, I was just stubbornly immature and refused to go. The rumor was I was sick, but I’m sure you knew better.”

“Well, I had heard you and Velator had a fight about it.”

“Amazing,” Velirith shook her head. “My father and I did have words about it, but we were the only ones in the room. You certainly keep well informed.”

Moshalli beamed. “We MgFellis’ are at the center of everything. We are trusted to be discreet and yet sometimes, if our family didn’t know what was happening, nothing would ever get done!”

Velirith regarded her talkative friend and agreed there was a good deal of truth in what she said. Moshalli, however, played it up.

“Like now,” Moshalli continued with a melodramatic sigh, pulling a sheaf of papers out of a small satchel. “You know my mother is the events coordinator for the Executive Chair. She assigned me to order the dancers for the Family Harmony Dance. My stars, Velirith! Do you realize how difficult this is? How important?” Moshalli’s mother, Fechua, was not one to overlook her daughter’s social training.

Eyes wide with amused concern, Velirith shook her head slightly.

“Well, think of it! What if Forcheso Parchiki were accidentally paired with Feleanna Cortatti, who everyone knows is trying to bring down his fabric trade by having that awful Sindia Corch intercept his cloth shipments? Or if I accidently paired Feleanna with this mysterious Ortessi heir, who was supposed to be dead and now shows up twenty years later? Could you imagine the consequences?”

Imagine. Velirith had actually put her mind to work visualizing the scene. Feleanna was a wicked witch with way too many years and ambitions left in her. If she were paired with a leader of a house she was currently trying to eliminate, the result would be dramatic, if not explosive. It could make the whole event worthwhile, Velirith thought.

“Or imagine the Executive Chair himself, dancing majestically around the outer circle and ending up with Balfani Telander, that big woman married to the prime of the power plant house? After the faked magal shortage was exposed, they hate each other!”

Velirith felt the excitement of a new idea coming on. “How do you arrange the dance so that no one is paired with someone they don’t get along with?”

“Well, the dance represents social order, families caring for each other—“

Velirith let out a snort of laughter.

“What?”

Between spasms of laughter, Velirith managed to get out, “Come on, Moshalli! You just told me how much everybody hates each other. You don’t see the irony of a dance that symbolizes families ‘taking care of each other’?”

By her frown, Moshalli evidently hadn’t looked past the tradition to see the reality. “In the old days, the groups were completely random. They would just dance with whoever they ended up with. Now we are more careful.”

Calming herself, Velirith said, “Go on. Please.”

“Well, it’s also called the Mystery Partner Dance. You’ve seen it, but this is the first year you can actually dance in it, now that your father has declared you heir-apparent of house Vel. You know the men are in the outer circle and the women in the inner circle. The two circles move opposite each other, everyone switching partners until a third of the way through the music. Then the music changes, the circles stop rotating, and they dance with that partner for the rest of the song. That way the new partners can talk and get to know each other better.”

Controlling her rising excitement, Velirith pictured what a fouled dance plan could produce in this time when families were anything but caring.

Ignorant of Velirith’s inner humor, Moshalli went on. “The hard part is sorting out who hates who. Once that is figured out, it’s actually easier than you think to keep feuding families apart. There are two groups of dancers that never mix; my mother just puts rivals in separate groups. Like Feleanna will be in group ‘A’ and both Forcheso Parchiki and the Ortessi mystery man will be in group ‘B’. They’ll never get paired together.”

“How does that work?” asked Velirith, suddenly curious.

“Look.” And Moshalli explained, placing a sheet of paper with diagrams on top of Velirith’s script. The outer and inner circle consisted of about forty dancers each, but as they counter-rotated, Velirith saw how they skipped a person after each short dance interaction, creating the two groups, odds and evens, or “A”s and “B”s. As long as the groups were equal in number, everyone would always end up partnered with someone from their own group. Though simple, it was an elegant, beautiful dance, Velirith admitted, and very old, dating back to when Velik himself had united the diverse tribes living all over the three continents.

But she also saw, more by intuition, that if either circle lost a single dancer or a couple from the same group, group ‘A’ dancers would be forced to partner with group ‘B’ dancers. She also noticed the pattern was mathematical. If a specific dancer was taken out at the right time, a preset arrangement of the dancers that looked random could actually be arranged to partner specific dancers with an exact predetermined match.

One sheet of the diagram held blank circles that were to be filled in with dancers’ names.

“Moshalli,” Velirith asked suddenly, as the patterns of the dance began to come together, “May I help you fill in the names?”

Moshalli was thrilled. “That would help a lot! Sure! It shouldn’t be too hard since mother already separated the groups so there won’t be any conflicts. We just have to make sure that every other spot around the circle is filled with a group ‘A’ dancer and that they are across from another group ‘A’ dancer.”

Her mind racing, Velirith dictated the names to Moshalli who wrote them into the blanks. Spinning the circles in her head, Velirith figured out just who would be paired with whom. And, more critical to her mischief, she figured just which dancers needed to be taken out to alter the results of the “random” dance.

Giggling for different reasons, the girls had a delightful time. Moshalli was in her element, gossiping and seemingly planning this important event. Every tidbit of gossip, Velirith turned into a dance couple, appearing to rearrange at random the names Moshalli blithely tossed out.

“So Callia and Ferdando used to be this hot couple, but when neither Ferdando nor Callia were willing to go over to the opposite family in marriage, you can bet the elements heated up! If I were Callia, I mean, she’s so pretty and has some of the most elegant dresses, I would never let a man as handsome as that Ferdando get away.”

“That’s incredible, Moshalli. The stupid things people do. Let’s move Ferdando over to this circle on the opposite side of Callia. It’s still in his same group.”

“Okay.” And Moshalli penned it in.

Of course, with the rotation of the circles, and one couple dropping out at just the right (or wrong) time… Velirith paused and looked over at her friend. This dance was important to Moshalli, too important. She didn’t seem to realize how superficial all this was, and that she was looking up to these puffed-up frauds as heroes, people she wanted to impress. If Velirith could show her how ugly these personalities really were, Moshalli might see that her own qualities, her enthusiasm and sweetness, were actually more authentic and noble than the false fronts of the people she looked up to.

It might hurt her a little to see the dance she cared about go awry, but in the long run, she further justified, Moshalli’s self-esteem could really be elevated. And this will look completely accidental! Moshalli can’t be blamed.

At the end, Moshalli packed up her papers. “I have to get these to the printers. Then I’m to hand-deliver to each family their copy of which position they will start in. It’s going to be so exciting!”

“No doubt,” Velirith agreed.

“Did you know some of the dancers practice all year just so this dance works perfectly?”

“Really?”

Moshalli nodded vigorously. “You probably don’t have to because of your theater experience, but it’s true. Oh, I wish our family was recognized for how important we really are. Then I could dance and be swept around the floor by some handsome mystery man. This New Year’s Eve will be glorious!”

After Moshalli had left on the private tram that spanned the familial towers, Velirith had sat at her window feverishly writing out the pairings she had arranged. Then she had forged notes from one partner to the other, marveling at how devious her own mind could be.

Now, with the dance beginning in just a couple hours, Velirith would execute her plans at the Executive Chair’s New Year’s gala. The voice of Discernment in her head seemed to whisper that what she had planned was wrong. But the louder voice of Mischief danced and laughed that this was just what the Omeron needed, a little dramatic revelation of the hypocrisy played out in a Family Harmony Dance. Velirith intentionally chose Mischief and opened her eyes just as a knock at the door pulled her from the replay of Moshalli’s visit.

“Velirith, your father says it’s time.”

“Thank you Anessa. Tell him that I am on my way.” Anessa was not only her bodyguard, but a close friend as well.

Velirith adjusted the collar on her outfit and gently arranged the stack of fake notes in her satchel of woven silver. She hung the bag over her right shoulder and patted it with excitement. Adding spike to the punch, she thought.

She took a last look in the mirror, practiced her best look of pure childish innocence, and headed to the private tram to meet her father and go to the gala.

[] Chapter Six

 

Kieler swore in his head, but his face remained impassive, even nonchalant.

The last agent slid onto the tram as the begrimed bronze doors slid closed with a heavy thump. Both the doors and the agent impressed him as being old without showing it properly. The doors were artfully and sturdily built, at least a couple hundred years ago. Three layers of bronze trim arched gracefully over the portal, strong and solid but tarnished with time.

While casually pretending to look at the tram doors, Kieler peripherally studied the remaining agent. Kieler couldn’t pinpoint why the man struck him as old. His face was youthfully unlined. Physically, the man was below average height, dark haired, and had a pale, smooth complexion. Perhaps the larger nose and ears, despite his clear complexion, made him look like an older man. And his eyes, while not rheumy, were dull, as if the light in them had waned.

The tram climbed slowly, rising from the Glums toward the brighter, higher level of Plaza Floraneva. These trams were built with a tasteful elegance in an era when efficiency wasn’t defined by cutting back on materials or energy usage. The vehicles were beautifully designed, monstrous and enduring. Once Kieler was done redesigning the government, the engineer in him would love to streamline these trams. It was said of the ancient vehicles, “They were proof that with enough magal, even a mountain can fly.” Since House Ek’s rise to power some eighty years ago, the aphorism was irreverently edited to “with enough magal, Ek can move mountains.”

But this man shadowing him did not work for Ek, Kieler was intuitively sure. Probably Cortatti. But how did he know which gate Kieler would use? Chance?

Lumbering up the track, the tram approached the underside of Plaza Floraneva. The Plaza’s tram station encircled one of the ancient pillars that supported the plaza itself and the upper levels of the city. In the Glums, these pillars were either covered with grime or, near Plate level, covered with tenements and shabby businesses like The Bottom of the Barrel.

Several packed trams approached and departed, spiraling in and away from the station. The tracks hung suspended from the column like curving branches from a tree trunk. This was one of the busiest hubs in the city.

Consciously relaxing his jaw muscles, Kieler thought about how he was going to lose his uninvited companion.

Something else made the man seem older too. He didn’t move enough. He just stood there, not looking around. If he was pretending disinterest in Kieler, he was expert at it.

The tram slowed as it sidled up to a curved platform ringing the spire. When the doors opened, the man got off first and moved a few feet onto the platform and stopped to wait for his charge. Kieler considered just staying on and letting the tram take him to the next station farther west, then doubling back. But he needed to climb the Grand Stair from Plaza Floraneva northeast to Garrist Ring. So pretending to go on would just waste time. If he hadn’t needed to get the sigil last night, he would have camped on top of the Charlaise building and waited for the proper time to hop over to the party. But now, he had to get there before full dark.

His tail was just standing there, completely at ease it seemed, as if he knew Kieler would be coming along and he needn’t be worried. It was a little unnerving. Was this guy that good? Maybe choosing such a well-known gate from the under-city was a bad call. Perhaps the Cortattis put their best man on it. The guy was sure to tip off a swarm of Cortatti thugs once they got higher and closer to the palace. Kieler had to lose him now.

The platform was jammed with partygoers. Two more crowded trams pulled up to adjacent platforms and unloaded as Kieler disembarked and suddenly he saw a way.

Inelegant, he thought, but effective.

As the throng from the other trams moved toward the exits and pressed around him, Kieler waited until the flow of traffic had put several bodies between him and his tail and then, in a moment where two taller men blocked line of sight, he dropped down to all fours and crawled.

He wound his way through the legs of the crowd over to another tram waiting with its doors open and scuttled onto it, keeping his head below the window level. The empty tram seemed to be waiting for a set departure time, which was fortunate.

After half a minute, Kieler poked an eye up from behind a seat and looked across the platform. Most of the current wave of people had passed and his stoic tail was easy to spot, standing, halfway up the stairs, looking down and around the momentarily less busy platform. Kieler imagined the man shrugging, thought he saw the agent smirk, then turned and continued dispassionately up the stairs.

There were other exits from the platforms up through the hub to Plaza Floraneva and Kieler found one. He climbed stairs through the interior of the black tower. The line of station doors emptied onto the center of the west side of the triangular plaza. Kieler hovered around the northernmost door and looked across the other station doors and east over the plaza. There was no sign of his enigmatic shadow.

Just to be sure, he climbed to the second tier of shops, found a quiet alcove and scouted the plaza below. Plaza Floraneva was jammed with people. In the corners of the triangular plaza were monumental buildings constructed when Avertori was in its prime, flourishing both culturally and economically. All three structures were of such architectural magnificence that it was a marvel of complacency how well the throngs of partiers could ignore them.

 South, and to his right, was the seldom-used theater, the Oraflora, named by the house he would be assuming leadership of this evening, House Ortessi.

The Oraflora was open tonight. Run by the Cortattis, who had taken it over when the babe Orlazrus Ortessi went missing (presumed burned to death), the once famous playhouse was now infamous. Anyone older than the takeover assumed the Cortattis were purposely discrediting the usurped property. The play tonight was “The War Tribes of Ardan”. Where once House Ortessi had accurately dramatized historical events, the Cortatti plays tended to butcher history—with the emphasis on butchery.

The theater itself still presented a dramatic façade; its three vertical marquees stretched skyward with luzhril spotlights already ablaze. When the sun went fully down, the bold marquees would cast stark shadows into the sky, contrasting the brilliantly lit marquees with the darkness beyond. But the performance itself would be little attended, Kieler knew.

Even less attended, in fact, deserted, would be the edifice directly across the tri from him in the southeast corner, the cathedral. Kieler didn’t know much of its original purpose—Movus hadn’t taught him anything about it—but of the three corner buildings, it was the most magnificent. Ornate, double flying buttresses adorned each of the six corners of the structure, each buttress and the corner itself topped with escalating towers, eighteen in all. A latticework dome topped the main nave and glittered with oranges and reds as the setting sun refracted through the crystalline panels.

It had been sealed off for as long as Kieler had known. One day, he would like to see the inside.

The final structure, burgeoning with people, was the Arena to his left. House Cortatti ran this place too, but in contrast to Oraflora, they ran the Arena extremely well—from a business perspective. Originally, it was a place of sporting contests for feats of might and strategy, built in the same century as its two companion structures in opposite corners of the Plaza.

Contests were still held there, but losers left dead and winners only lived to fight again. Supposedly only violent criminals sentenced to death ended up in the Arena. But Kieler knew better.

In his operations with the Coin, Kieler had occasionally used the services of the Lurani brothers, who ran a smuggling ring of medicine and medical supplies from the Glums. The Merckles, who had the state-sanctioned monopoly on health care, had traced the Lurani’s down through their own industrial spy network.

The Lurani brothers had ended their lives in a dramatic but sadistic contest held in the very same edifice that Kieler was now surveying. The contraption designed for their demise consisted of two separate tanks with one brother chained to the bottom of each tank. Each brother had a bucket and each tank had water running into it. The men could bail the water out, but the contraption was designed to carry the water one brother bailed, into the tank of the other brother. Eventually one drowned the other trying to survive. Wracked with guilt, the surviving brother was eventually pitted against another criminal and killed.

Their crime was far from violent. But the interpretation by the Omeron appointed courts was that it was violence against the people of Avertori in general by undermining their health care.

Kieler caught himself gritting his teeth and stopped. Slink Squad had bought from the Lurani brothers. They had been good men with good intentions. The Omeron needed to be taken down.

The ageless shadow that Kieler had ditched undoubtedly worked for one of the Omeron families. Thankfully, Kieler saw no sign of him in the plaza below.

He looked due east to where the Grand Stair climbed at least fifty stories from the edge of Plaza Floraneva up to Garrist Ring. It was a long climb. But the block-wide stair, adorned with statuary and cafes and tall buildings up the middle of it, was far more difficult to watch than the trams that ascended under the Stair. House Cortatti would be his primary opponent. They knew why he was coming and what he looked like. If they could stop him before the gala, he—and any claim Orlazrus Ortessi might have made—would soon be forgotten.

The Grand Stair curved gently and majestically up to the northeast and ended at the promenade of Garrist Ring. Up the centerline of the Stair ran a stately line of towering buildings, each grand unto itself, owned by Omeron families with sufficient status. Connecting each of them near their tops was an exclusive private tram (for ruling family members only). The tram ran from the Arena, across Floraneva to the first family office building, and then up the Stair to each successive tower until it finally ran above the only bridge to the Palace of the Executive Chair.

The nearest of these family headquarters, Vel-Taradan, overlooked Plaza Floreneva. It consisted of a complex of three graceful towers and belonged to House Vel. Kieler thought it the most desirable location since it was nearest the fading beauty and bustle of Plaza Floreneva.

Looking to the top of House Vel’s three towers, Kieler saw the private, suspended tram car (nicknamed the FamTram) leaving the station at the top of one tower, probably taking a load of self-important dignitaries up the stairs to the gala.

I wonder if Velator himself is aboard that tram, Kieler thought. The head of house Vel had been reclusive in Kieler’s lifetime, spending most of his time in the mountainous city of Velakun from which House Vel originated. When Kieler was very young, he had learned from his father the tales and histories of Velik, Velator’s ancestor and the founder of Avertori some thousand years ago. It was Velik and Boreas who reclaimed the city from the decay and wild creatures that infested the ruins of the Dead Ones on the Isle of Threes.

Satisfied that he had crudely but effectively shaken off his tail, Kieler worked his way north on the second tier of shops. The arched facades surrounding the Plaza Floreneva had been designed to house retail stores. In the flourishing activity of the growing city, this was to be the heart of culture and commerce. The plan had succeeded marvelously—for a while.

Now, Kieler noted one shop in three boarded up, with crumbling tiles and unrepaired chips falling from the arches. The shops were busy tonight, but that was an aberration.

Specialty clothing shops seemed to have suffered the most; their faded signs hung over empty display windows.

A sign over a busy shop entryway read “Cortatti Arms” and in the window a sign touting, “Buy the weapon of tonight’s battle: the new Barcleaver!” These shops seemed prolific, though why someone who belonged to a sub-house would need a three-foot long battle-blade and what good it would be against the Cortatti’s magguns… well, there was a reason for the term “ignorant masses”.

Before he reached the Arena, Kieler turned right and descended to the Plaza level, striding east across the open plaza in front of it. Myriad fountains and statues adorned the Plaza, but all the fountains were dry, even on this festive eve, save the massive centerpiece of Floraneva. This fountain consisted of several characters. Three shungvaal, the giant, horned creatures of the sea, circled the scene within and spouted huge streams of water toward the center. Back to back in the middle were larger-than-life depictions of Velik and Boreas: Boreas hefting his famed spear and Velik with his bow drawn back. Between the jetting shungvaal and the two heroes were grotesquely distorted creatures: a gnarled grevon, legions of oversized slinks, and a dozen monsters that seemed to be part building or vehicle and part animal.

Tonight, Kieler barely glanced at it. He scanned constantly and inconspicuously for more Omeron agents. Still dressed as Geren, full beard and work clothes, he certainly wouldn’t match the description Feleanna would have issued from their encounter last night. Of course, this outfit would be out of place when he reached the financial district of Garrist Ring.

Street vendors hawked their treats for the evening’s festivities. Buskers juggled, singers crooned, and as he neared the base of the Grand Stair, he couldn’t help but be distracted by a troupe of unusually talented acrobats. Dressed all in white with red sashes and black masks, they performed elaborately coordinated tricks. As Kieler passed, one of the performers dove from the top of a human pyramid straight at the hard tile of the plaza. With no one there to catch the headfirst diver, Kieler, like the other spectators, thought they had made a deadly error. But in a mere blink, the launching pyramid dissolved into a flurry of bodies and four of its members appeared at precisely the right spot to catch, swing and re-launch the diving performer. He seemed to float and slowly flip before rolling across the tiles back to a standing position and a flourish.

Wadded paper money flew in the direction of their caps as the assembled audience exploded with appreciation.

Kieler climbed. The Grand Stair was a half-mile long stretch of the most prestigious real estate in Zotikas. Of the shops, restaurants, banks and cafes that lined the sides of the Stair or terraced its center, few of these were closed. They catered to the elite, and the elite lived in the apartments and office towers that graced the centerline of the Stair. Already Kieler felt underdressed.

But covering his features now was more important than dressing up. He could still be a worker on a last minute job until the top of the Stair. He spotted a couple agents as he climbed; men dressed in sturdy but tidy suits with bulging overcoats. They looked up from their papers too often. Lounged by the rails too casually. All the while they scanned the stairs and lacked the purposeful demeanor of workers going home or party-goers heading for an alcoholic destination.

From Vel-Taradan and past the multitude of House edifices, the route was always up. Most people, traveling to the topmost plaza, would have taken the tram that ran up the underside of the Stair.

As he finally neared the top, Kieler found the deepening shadow of a terraced café. Here he shed his beard, work clothes and shambling gait to emerge in a finely tailored, grey cut of cloth trimmed in black suitable for a Bintle financial clerk. House Bintle had, from the time of Velik, run the banking system. Now corrupt, family members and functionaries were quite common on the Garrist Ring.

He reached into the breast pocket and placed hexagonal eyeglasses on the bridge of his nose. Now he was Niven Wensith, his hair short, his walk the stiff, cocky and brisk stride of a confident, drab accountant needing to get to the Charlaise building for some final business before the closing at full dark.

As Rei finally retired, its fading beams settling into the western sea, Kieler gained the promenade at Garrist Ring. Garrist was a toroid of the highest rising financial structures. A wide walkway circled the inner gap, allowing pedestrians an inspired view straight down to the Plate and an equally inspiring view of the void-piercing spire that supported the Executive Chair’s Palace.

That spire stood directly before Kieler as he topped the stairs and was taller by far than even the sky-scratching structures surrounding it on the Ring.

In contrast to the purposely expansive Plaza Floreneva below, Garrist was imposingly vertical. Between the spire and the inside promenade of Garrist was a dizzying, empty gap from the greatest heights of the city straight down to the very Plate itself. Kieler admired the engineering but loathed the hubris.

There were two standard approaches to the palace of the EC; first, a narrow bridge in front of the Grand Stair spanned the gap (over which ran the FamTram), and second, access to the palace above could be gained by coming up the center of the ancient spire from the depths below. Both choke points were heavily guarded—not so much to prevent deviants like himself from causing mischief, Kieler realized, but to keep the untrusted competing houses from getting too ambitious.

Kieler, however, had devised a third way.

He turned right and angled toward the Charlaise building a quarter way round the Ring. This alone would throw the Cortatti grevons off his scent. To them, the only way to Kieler’s inevitable destination was across that single span. He noticed to his great satisfaction a man leaning against a newsstand reading, who glanced up at him, saw the bored expression of an overworked, hope-drained financial pawn fixed inanely on Kieler’s face, and look back down. Despite his intentionally minimal disguise, the proper countenance conveyed the proper profession.

Out of his peripheral vision, Kieler noted at least a half dozen men more interested in who approached the bridge than in what they were doing that evening. He had to tightly stifle a grin. Others waited at building corners, in arched alcoves, or at shop windows. Either Kieler was paranoid—or egotistical—or there were a lot of Cortatti goons determined to get him.

The sky was darkening and would soon be lit with the fireworks that marked the beginning of the New Year’s Eve celebration.

The incognito sentinels thinned out significantly as he left the bridge behind. Without falling out of character he relaxed mentally. He would make the Charlaise Building, headquarters of Bank Bintle. It was with that thought that he noticed something disturbing—someone, actually, leaning spiritlessly against the right side of the Charlaise Building. His tail from the tram was ahead of him.

With forty paces to go, as used to pretending as he was, as much as he had practiced, he slipped out of character.

His pace must have quickened and he glanced left. A man near the edge of the ring noticed him and suddenly dropped the pretense of waiting for the fireworks. Worse, Kieler recognized the man! It was the same guard he’d passed in the Grand Hall of the Cortatti keep the night before.

At the same moment, Kieler’s old tail spotted him, straightened and waited nonchalantly for him to get closer.

Kieler looked back at the man angling towards him, pulling a maggun out from under his overcoat. The Charlaise building was still thirty yards away. There was no doubt that before Kieler reached the building, the men would intercept him.

[] Chapter Seven

 

On the top floor of Vel-Taradan, Velator stood waiting for her in front of a suspended tram. Her father’s eyes widened as Velirith approached.

Velirith smiled, wondering what he would choose to comment on. She inclined her head, “Father.”

He paused, obviously considering his words carefully. Velirith had always liked this about him. He thought about what he was going to say, rarely speaking offhand.

“Your smile is gorgeous, but it doesn’t quite hide the threat.”

She dropped her smile immediately, surprised. It was rare for someone to surprise her, but she knew she got her intuition from somewhere. Even though her father didn’t see through people like she could, he knew her well enough.

Feigning innocence, she said, “What do you mean, Father?”

“Mmm,” he shook his head slowly, “mischief.”

He shrugged, as if dismissing the thought. Instead, he regarded her from top to bottom and nodded approval. “You certainly have creative genius, my daughter. You’ve managed to make our Vel formal uniform look beautifully feminine.”

She almost blushed, but instead, twirled, unable to curb a girlish delight in the spotlight of her father’s approval. The long-cut coat flared out like a dress when she spun. She, at least, would look good in the dance.

Her father smiled. “Not that I fear some young gentleman sweeping you up. They may try, but I’m certain no one will measure up.”

She scowled at the last comment. “Funny, you should say that, Father. I have just noticed how judgmental I can be. I’m never wrong about people, but I don’t know if I like ‘judgmental’ as an epitaph.”

Seeing she was sincere, he drew her into a warm hug. “Moral introspection, followed by resolve, will serve you well, Velirith.”

Buried in her father’s embrace, she frowned. Tonight’s escapade probably didn’t meet the requirements of the first step. At least my resolve is in place.

They stepped onto the suspended FamTram and it immediately started northeast and up. Velirith looked down onto the Grand Stair below and watched the throngs hurrying both up and down in the long shadows of the towers lining the edge of the Stair. Rei was setting and everyone was speeding toward one pleasure or another. She felt much more distant than thirty floors of altitude could account for. Their lives were so meaningless—her judgment coming through again—but for that matter, so was hers. She wanted so much for her life to have significance.

They passed through two familial towers on the Stair and stopped inside the third to pick up some members of the Merckle family. Velator stood as Lhea Margríte Merckle and her two sons boarded. Like the Vel’s, the Merckles were required to attend the gala without their bodyguards.

“Margríte, good evening,” he greeted.

“Good evening, Velator.” Lhea Merckle, despite being a manipulative opportunist, genuinely respected Velirith’s father. Velirith could tell. All the house matrons respected him, except Feleanna Cortatti. Undoubtedly that was because he treated everyone one respectfully—despite their deep differences.

Margríte Merckle’s sons were a couple of years older than Velirith. That certainly didn’t stop them from looking at her. Velirith gave them a straightforward, disinterested look to discourage them from staring or stealing glances at her. She could feel her father taking note of the adolescent exchange.

A FamTram gondola was smaller than Avertori’s public trams and was supported from above rather than below. It covered a shorter distance and carried a very limited clientele. But tonight it stopped at several more familial high-rises. When Ferdando Ashperis boarded from his parents’ agriculture headquarters, she felt the judgment rise in her again. The coward. He’ll get a little taste of judgment tonight. She suppressed her excitement and tried to ignore the fact that he too was looking at her.

I must look good.

The tram stopped climbing and flattened out over the Garrist Ring. Shortly thereafter they were cruising above the narrow bridge that spanned the empty space between Garrist and the spire supporting the lofty palace of the Executive Chair. From Garrist, the spire branched up and out into three curving fingers between which, far above, was a garden terrace, and in the middle of that terrace, the palace.

Velirith looked down toward the Plate over a quarter mile below. She liked the excitement of heights and the gaping distance reminded her of the towering city of Velakun that was her home. Velakun was a much smaller city, but more aesthetically developed.

The tram entered a portal in the cream-colored spire and they were soon disembarking to board an elevator. The clear elevators ascended diagonally up the underside of one of the finger spires to the edge of the flared terrace hosting the Executive Chair’s air garden. It forced the occupants to look down into the gaping distance.

She loved it. And she loved it more to watch the young men pull back from the edge with vertigo as they rose without visual references. Of course, they probably hadn’t used their city as a playground the way she had used her home of Velakun. But when she flew at home, she didn’t have such a view.

Rei touched the horizon far to the west as it fell through a layer of clouds. The city spread out around Velirith like a twinkling, three-dimensional puzzle. And the sea, visible from this height on all sides, wrapped around the Isle of Threes like a protective mother.

High above Garrist Ring, they disembarked at the edge of the air garden. Velirith on her father’s arm, the group of guests proceeded through the widely spaced trees and statuary toward the stairs leading up to the great hall. One reason she had chosen pants for her outfit design was that the quirky breezes at this height teased the ladies’ dresses and had them clutching their hats. But tonight, she noticed, the winds were calm.

Velirith decided she didn’t like the palace design. Too ostentatious. Too grandiose. She did appreciate the myriad balconies, though. Every level, both above and below the great hall along the spire, was speckled with both private and public balconies, sometimes with decorative plants to add greenery to the entirely manmade edifice.

From Velirith’s previous visits to the palace, she knew the layout. Bored, she had thoroughly explored both upward and downward in the lofty palace, dodging or charming the sparse guards. Most of Ek’s sentries remained at the entrances or within the great hall itself. Still, her explorations here didn’t compare to those of the hidden ways and intriguing architecture of her home in ancient Velakun.

Together with their small group from the elevator, Velirith and her father made their way through the air gardens. When she was younger, she’d found the trek frightening; now she just found it to be frighteningly bad taste.

Greenery was sparse, considering it was a garden. As the visitors neared the great hall they were channeled between two rows of gigantic statues, three or four times life-size. On either side of them—looking down on us, Velirith thought—were the dark likenesses of… House Ek!

The statues were odd not just because of their size, but because they were grey. It was a good color for a tacky effigy—dark, loamy grey, as if the sculptor was short on funds so the material was pulled out of a magal mine, lumped into a mold, and then fired to harden into some stodgy ancestor of Ek Threzhel. Which is exactly what they did, Velirith realized. But the oddest thing about the score of superhuman statues lining the path to the great hall was that they were very highly magnetic, completely cast of magal.

Velirith shook her head at one particularly stern Ek looking down at her accusingly. It evoked an emotional response she could not help voicing, “Ek!

Because of the proliferation of magnetic statuary, it was well known that one did not wear steel to the New Year’s Gala. Buckles, swords, and particularly lady’s brooches that could tear away, all had to be non-ferrous. Otherwise one was suddenly and unnaturally attracted to the masculine figures lining the approach.

This presented a problem Velirith hoped she could overcome. In her satchel was a tiny cord knife. It was a dull, wooden hook with the only metal being an incredibly sharp blade around its inside curve. It was used in theatre when a strap or small rope needed to be surreptitiously cut to bring down a dramatic effect. It could be hooked around a cord and, with the flick of a wrist, slice through a line of fair strength.

Unfortunately, the cutting edge itself was made of steel.

Holding her father’s arm with her left hand, she clutched her satchel in her right, fiercely pushing down on the satchel to keep it from flying out toward the magnetic Eks.

Even though the sharp sliver of metal around the inside hook was lighter than a hatpin, Velirith could feel the piece jerking the purse from side to side as the massive statues fought for possession. She gently nudged her father so that she was precisely in the middle of the opposing statues. Though she tried to be graceful, her steps wavered.

Her father gave her a sidelong, curious look, but this time said nothing, perhaps attributing it to her nerves.

They climbed the stairs up to the stone promenade surrounding the great hall and entered through its towering doors, joining the queue for Ek Threzhel’s receiving line. Predictably, and the pinnacle of gaudiness in Velirith’s opinion, a magal statue of Ek Threzhel himself stood behind the flesh and blood model at the end of the receiving line. It seemed taller than the others and no less repulsive.

Waiting to greet the Executive Chair, Velirith surveyed the huge interior of the great hall. The domed ceiling of the oval hall was easily sixty feet above them. The room was longer than wide, but not by much. In the center was a mosaic tile pattern typical to all Avertori, a large honeycomb consisting of smaller hexagonal pieces. This was the floor on which the dancers would be paired in the Family Harmony Dance. She involuntarily tightened her grip on her father’s arm at the thought of the dance.

“You okay, Velirith?” he asked.

She forced herself to relax. “Yes, fine, Father. Just jittery. You know I have trouble with events like this.”

Velator nodded, accepting her excuse. Around the dance floor, to both the right and left, were high tables and chairs, all assigned to specific guests. Velirith assumed these were carefully segregated for minimum conflict just as the partnering in the dance was supposed to be.

The assignments did make it easier for the wait staff to find people, especially for the task of delivering New Year’s Greetings during the social hour before the fireworks. The tradition of notes, begun long ago, was initially a warm, loving way for families to uniquely express appreciation or well-wishes to another cherished family. Some families still honored the tradition. But nowadays, many used it as an anonymous way to jab or jibe a rival house. It could get brutal.

The tradition allowed for only one greeting from each person, making the note particularly special. Velirith winced inwardly, realizing that the twenty-two notes in her purse would definitely not add to “family harmony.” But they might make a point that reform was necessary—no, she refused to delude herself: This was a practical joke for her own amusement and to antagonize people who definitely deserved it.

The first person to greet them in the receiving line was Fechua MgFellis, Moshalli’s mother.

“Velator! Velirith! Wonderful to see you,” she smiled broadly. Genuine affection still exists, Velirith noted. It struck her how similar Fechua’s greeting was to her daughter’s just two days earlier. Velirith let go of her father with her left hand and briefly embraced her friend’s mother. Immediately her satchel swung out behind her, repelled by the magnetic statue behind the EC. Of course, that statue would be designed to push steel away from the EC, not draw it in.

Her bag tugged at her shoulder. Without looking, Velirith stretched out her right arm to clutch the willful satchel and hauled it back as gracefully as possible.

Fechua seemed to notice nothing and asked if they had their New Year’s Greetings ready. Velator handed her an elegant envelope which she passed to an assistant behind her.

“I’m sorry, Fechua. I’m not done with mine,” Velirith apologized. “May I bring it up in just a couple of minutes?”

“Certainly. You’re not the only one. Just hand it to the attendant at the table.”

            The man behind Fechua took Velator’s greeting over to an elegantly decorated table guarded by another attendant.

“Velirith, that uniform, you designed it, didn’t you?”

Velirith nodded. “Working with theater costumes has serendipities.”

“It is both beautiful and striking,” Fechua admired.

Striking, yes. “Thank you,” Velirith replied. The Merckle trio was just finishing their hellos to the Executive Chair and his wife.

Turning to the EC, Fechua introduced them formally despite the familiar association Velator had with the Executive Chair. “May I present Velator, Prime of House Vel, and his daughter, Velirith.”

Velator gripped arms with the Executive Chair and greeted him congenially, despite full awareness by both that less than a century ago, the Primes of House Vel had occupied the position of Executive Chair. Velirith knew her father simply chose not to harbor ill will. And Velirith herself—she didn’t care. Who would want to rule such a petty society anyway?

She felt her father’s quick sidelong glance, checking that Velirith wouldn’t do anything unbecoming. One year, when she was thirteen, she pretended an over-familiarity with His Eminence, and hugged him ebulliently. His guards, always standing behind him, didn’t appreciate the gesture of “affection”, but couldn’t exactly chastise a thirteen-year-old girl in front of hundreds of guests.

She greeted him with only a sly, confident smile, but did nothing untoward, keeping her right hand tight upon her purse. The Executive Chair returned her greeting politely but warily, as if handling a beautifully wrapped, but dangerous package.

The Executive Chair’s wife was overweight, but not grossly so. She looked as bored as Velirith would have been had she not appointed herself Alternative Entertainment Chairwoman. Their salutations were cursory.

Velirith read a vague suspicion in her father, but Velator simply led her to their table behind one of the wait staff where she pretended to finish her greeting.

“I’ll be right back,” she told her father. She strode over to the decorated note table and stood in front of the box next to the guard. She held but a single note in its stylish envelope. She glanced at the attending guard and smiled. He nodded in return, looking at her a bit too long.

“Oh,” she said, feigning surprise. There was no name on the envelope. She set the envelope on the edge of the table and used her stylus to scribe the name. As she lifted her hand, the card fell to the floor. “Oh!” she said again. She moved to bend over and retrieve it, then stopped as if realizing the impropriety of a young lady crawling under the table to pick up the note. “Would you be so kind?” she asked the attendant.

The man was more than willing to please. As he knelt and ducked his head, she deftly removed the remaining twenty-one notes—all differing in content, packaging and handwriting—and dropped them into the box. The attendant rose, smiled and bowed. Then he placed her final note in the box for her.

“Thank you very much.” Velirith returned the bow with a charming smile. Then, with great composure, she walked back to her table, passing another young man with a belated note heading for the box.

[] Chapter Eight

 

They won’t shoot yet.

He hoped. Kieler had considered the possibility that he’d be discovered on the way to the Charlaise building and decided they wouldn’t shoot in the crowded Garrist Ring unless they thought they would lose him. At this point, it looked like they would run him down in about six seconds.

He broke into a dead run to change the intercept point and kept arrow straight as if he were going to pass right by the Charlaise building. His conspicuous speed and the purposeful movement of his first pursuer attracted more unwanted attention. Within a few steps, another half-dozen Cortatti roughs emerged from hidden posts and were angling toward him. They were all running now.

Kieler made the front of the Bintle-owned bank and cut right. Once through the sturdy doors, he reduced to a brisk stride across the large lobby and headed directly for the inner stairwell door. Behind him every Cortatti seemed to burst through the doors at the same time, weapons drawn.

The head clerk gave a shout, “Lock down!” and dashed for an emergency lever.

Kieler had about two seconds before the stairwell door in front of him would be sealed. He dove for it as the clerk yanked down on a huge brass lever to lock the doors of the building through a complex series of magnetic relays. Behind the general din, he heard magguns spinning up.

He hit the door, slamming it open. Once in the stairwell, he spun and threw his weight back onto the door to shut it. Now that he was through, he wanted it locked. Within a second of it closing, he heard the very satisfying, metallic thunk of a huge bolt sliding into place.

He rolled right as metal rang. A huge hole split open just inside the handle. Fortunately Kieler’s hand wasn’t on the handle as the maggun bolt tore through. He scrambled away before any more bolts hit and ran up the stairs.

That the Cortatti’s had fired inside a Bintle bank showed how intent they were on getting him. It also showed a frightening confidence that they felt they could wield their increasing power amongst the other houses. Kieler could hear more of the bolts flying below, but he had no idea whether the Cortattis were blasting the door or if Bintle security was laying down fire of its own. Regardless, in less than thirty seconds, all shots ceased. Kieler smiled.

This was a good break. He was trapped. Supposedly. They thought they had him, and sure enough, as he tried a door three levels above the lobby, it too was bolted. The Cortatti goon squad was probably figuring they had only to secure the exits and wait him out. They were sure to send contingents to the levels below as well. But he knew there was only one way to the roof, and he was on his way to it. On an earlier night, he had ensured that no bolt would bar him from rooftop access. In the lobby, tense and heated negotiations would be underway.

Regardless that his pursuit had been delayed and that he had trained extensively for this night, trotting up fifty flights of stairs was still a physical challenge. He shed his outer clothes, but carried them so they would not know whether he had gone up or down. The Bintle lock down could be overridden, but only one door at a time—so Movus’ intelligence reported. Kieler doubted the bank Officer-in-Charge would cooperate quickly with the Cortatti thugs trapped in his building.

On the roof, Kieler dropped the spare clothes and went to work. It had taken him many nights over the past weeks to carefully and methodically prepare for this. And he hadn’t done it using the stairs either. Behind a ventilation duct Kieler threw back the dark cover and felt a thrill of pride. There, secure against any wind, was the lightweight metal frame of a small airship.

A sharp crack sounded just off the edge of the roof and Kieler dropped to the deck. His heart sunk wondering how they had caught him before he could enact his plan. But then he realized; the fireworks had begun!

A giant sphere of purple and gold lightning expanded in the space between the roof and the Executive Palace, right in the center gap of Garrist Ring. The magal-luzhril burst produced a crackling thunderclap as it expanded, its aura lingering in fading radiance. Purple and gold, the colors of House Ek.

Kieler climbed to his feet and began to ready his ship. The hard rains had slackened but the clouds were still thick and threatening, waiting for reinforcements from the northeast. The wind was thankfully light.

His father had been obsessed with making energy production available on a smaller scale. This obsession had developed because Ek Threzhel had manipulated the magal supply to increase his own fortune. Kieler’s father wanted to break the hold House Ek had on everyone’s lives by their monopoly on magal. Out of this awesome and horrible obsession had come the engine that now drove Kieler’s magnificent little airship. It had also cost Kieler’s father his life.

Now Kieler’s own life was on the line. He stripped another tarp off three hydrogen tanks stowed next to the empty metal airframe. The inflatable envelope that would hold the gas was still secure and draped carefully around the frame for quick deployment.

He opened the valves on all three tanks, one after another, and could hear the steady hiss of gas entering the envelope. He easily had twice the hydrogen he needed for liftoff, but since there was no second chance, Kieler had flown in backup cylinders. Now that he was expecting company, there were other uses for the excess hydrogen. His ideal plan had been to slip up here unnoticed. A maggun shootout in the lobby was hardly ideal.

At first, the envelope looked as if it were barely filling. He checked that the valves were full open and then left the filling airship while he ran a thin wire in front of the rooftop door. The likely charge out of the door would yank the tripwire. After the airfoil was inflated, he would hook the hydrogen canisters into the trap.

By the light of multicolored aerial explosions he changed clothes. He had cooled from his ascent despite the work of setting up the airship. Donning his final disguise, the one he had stashed here on the rooftop just two nights ago, he buttoned the high collared dress uniform of House Ortessi. It was a sharp set, he admitted. Most houses had sunk to the loftiness of extremes, having colors and cuts that were gaudy and garish. But house Ortessi had risen to prominence with the classic houses, and thus fell when greed and self-aggrandizement became the style. At any rate, the deep green uniform trimmed with gold was simple and elegant, even if this particular formalwear was not suited for surreptitious excursions. Far too restrictive. He kept the Ortessian sigil tucked in an inside pocket for now.

Stepping over his wire, Kieler listened at the door. Nothing. No—wait, a banging far below. They were opening the door from the lobby!

The airship was taking shape. It was a large, bulbous wing that tapered toward the rear of the craft. It was not simply a balloon. Simple balloons had been tried, but were too susceptible to the whims of the wind. They were dangerous and unwieldy. Kieler had created a semi-buoyant craft which used his father’s small engine to provide forward motion for extra lift and control.

To create this forward velocity, a motorized fan was needed. And that motor had been unavailable until his father had made it possible to create one smaller than a man’s chest.

The dimples on the surface of the envelope were fast disappearing as hydrogen poured in from the three tanks. Kieler quickly shut down the first one, disconnected it, and rolled it over to another ventilation duct near the door.

Carefully, he balanced the tank on the edge of the duct so that the slightest pull from the wire would send it crashing down and break off the valve, turning the tank into a very distracting rocket. He listened at the door but a moment. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he heard footfalls far below.

He dashed over and disconnected the second canister. While he rolled it into it’s place for his crude trap, he allowed the last cylinder to finish filling out the airfoil. By the time he was ready for the final tank, the skin was tight and sleek, having formed into shape. He rolled the last canister over and balanced it next to the other two, then gently threaded the tripwire.

There was nothing left to do. Kieler jumped over the wire toward the door to listen for a brief second. He didn’t have to try very hard. The slow clomping of exhausted men was close.

Kieler leapt back over the wire, ran to his ship, and slashed the tie-downs. He then jumped into the pilot’s seat as the craft began to drift. As he pushed a lever forward, a core of highly purified magal slid into the engine and the fan whirred into motion. Revving softly, his airship started rolling across the roof.

Fireworks splashed the sky, illuminating his short takeoff. The beautiful explosions were a good distraction, pulling attention away from him. He just didn’t want to become part of the evening’s fiery entertainment.

The ship picked up speed, handling well. He had to be well clear of the roof when they barged through that door. If necessary, he could accelerate more by diving. Upon clearing the roof, the ship dropped sharply, but then picked up enough speed to be controllable and leapt back above the rooftop. He was airborne! No one in Zotikas had a machine like this one!

The airship pulled steadily away. His plan was to climb high above the bursting fireworks and enter the palace via a high balcony.

The high-pitched whine of charged magguns pinged in his ears above the whisper of the rotating fan, and Kieler glanced at the door. It opened cautiously. These goons have some savvy about them. One of them gave a cry to watch the wire as three others followed him out. Kieler ground his teeth as once again his plan went awry.

None of the Cortattis on the roof were his original tail. Not that it mattered, but Kieler was thankful. And for the moment his pursuers were more concerned about the trap than finding Kieler. But he knew he had only seconds before they would look around. He pulled up and climbed hard, putting himself above eye level. He could see them so clearly; he was too close!

But they were thinking narrowly, searching the rooftop, behind the ventilation duct, examining the canisters, his discarded clothes, and poking at the tarp that had covered the ship. He was gaining altitude and distance.

It became apparent to them all too quickly that Kieler was not on the roof and one clever thug looked up and around, puzzled. It took several seconds for him to spot the slow moving airship, and a couple more seconds to realize what he was looking at. Every second was precious distance, but Kieler was still well within maggun range.

Realization dawned, and with a cry, the man raised his weapon.

[] Chapter Nine

 

Social hour had already begun. Normally something to be endured, Velirith now eagerly glanced about as she rejoined her father.

“How are you doing Velirith?” her father asked her again.

Is he suspicious or just overly concerned about me having a good time? He knows I hate these masquerades. She worded her short response carefully. “Being good,” she said with a bored sigh.

Velator nodded, keeping his assessing gaze on her for a few moments longer. “Good. Let’s mingle. I’m sure there is someone here that even you want to see.”

Velirith returned her father’s look then shrugged. “Perhaps one.” And Velator, satisfied with that response, offered his arm and led her into the crowd.

Velator walked his daughter across the huge hall to the table of an ancient looking couple. As they approached, Lorad and Dia Firstholm roused from the patience of age and became warmly animated.

“Velirith, you look beautiful!” Lhea Firstholm exclaimed. “Oh, and Verr Velator, handsome as usual.”

Velator grasped Lorad’s arm, exchanging warm knowing smiles but no words. Then he kissed the man’s wife on the cheek. “And you look in excellent health, Dia. I’m glad I got noticed as an afterthought anyway.”

“Oh Vel, you’ve always been handsome, even as a boy. And now your daughter has decided to show the world of Zotikas a hint of her true loveliness.”

Feeling a slight blush, Velirith smiled back at Lhea Firstholm. The Firstholms had been and still were unfailing allies to house Vel since the days of Velik. Their seafaring family had prospered under the good governance and peaceful times of the fledgling Omeron. When House Vel lost the Executive, they too lost influence.

Velirith knew how much her father admired them and their loyalty. She also knew Velator’s affection was more personal. To Velirith, they were like grandparents rarely seen because of distance and busy lives. If there was but one couple she did want to see, it was the Firstholms.

 “I miss your skynut cookies, Lhea Firstholm,” Velirith mentioned, reminiscing.

“You remember those, yes? Well, I still make them for Lorad, but you would be a welcome guest anytime—no, soon, should you find the time in your social schedule,” Lhea Firstholm invited. “We do spend most of our time at home by the sea now.” Their home city, also called Firstholm, was far to the north, on the northwestern coast of Ardan.

Velirith laughed at the implication she had a social schedule.

“What now? Are you saying you aren’t booked solid with friends or even gentlemanly callers? I find that hard to accept.”

“Honestly, Lhea Firstholm, I don’t like most of my peers. They seem only interested in their own status and estate.”

Lhea Firstholm gave her a frank, nonjudgmental stare. “Well, doesn’t that put you in an enviable position, my dear? You have the choice of joining in their pettiness or rousing them to reform, don’t you?”

Velirith, rarely caught short, had to think about that. Her project tonight was definitely in the category of pettiness. Finally, speaking slowly, she responded, “I’m afraid I hadn’t even considered that I could make a positive difference.” She paused. “I’ll have to do something about it, true?”

Lhea Firstholm smiled, her eyes penetrating, and nodded.

Unafraid, Velirith felt a peace within her, an assurance that she indeed would do something. I wonder how that will play out…

The conversation between her father and his old friends continued. Velirith politely bowed out with a word from her father, “Don’t throw anything off the balconies… or anyone.” His look conveyed both humor and a serious warning.

She wandered around the large, six-sided dance floor. While just moments before she had been wondering whether making herself beautiful might be attracting too many eyes, she now felt completely invisible. With everyone’s attention engaged, she, like a little girl, walked the lines of tile edges, foot over foot, as if sneaking back to her room after one of her midnight explorations.

Velirith watched the guests and staff. No one was looking at her, not even the boys. She saw the house staff organizing the delivery of the New Year’s Notes. The employees broke up and spread out into the chatty crowd like a stirring breeze.

She watched the Executive Chair in his purple-gold pomp as he moved away from the receiving line toward the booth set up for his privacy. He seemed to be forcing his smile and walked like he was tired.

She saw a man from the wait staff angling toward Ferdando with Velirith’s note on the top of his stack. Looking across the room, she saw his frustrated lover, excited as she read the note she had just received. Velirith distinctly remembered writing that one. “I cannot bear separation from you, my dearest Callia. I have decided that renouncing my house and joining yours is no shame at all if I can spend my life in your arms. F

Callia’s sharp features brightened in surprise and happiness. Yet neither of the lovers had the courage to truly renounce their family for their “true love”. Velirith could only imagine Callia’s reaction when she found out Ferdando got a similar note from her.

Forcheso Parchiki’s voice blustered from her right. Velirith turned and saw him waving his note high above his head in his clenched fist. “The nerve! The gall! That woman—!“ He was referring to Feleanna, or perhaps her second in command who had been raiding his cloth shipments. “She writes like we of house Parchiki will do nothing to stop her! ‘Nudity will be in style this New Year unless another house takes up the slacks.’ I’ll—” The rest of his words were choked off in his rage.

Very passionate. Theatrical, even. Velirith approved. She hadn’t considered her notes might be read aloud. Feleanna was not yet in the hall. Odd, but convenient since Velirith wanted all parties involved to come together at the climax of her little drama. I wonder if Feleanna will get her note before the dance…

The volume in the great hall was increasing, her notes adding an angry and excited buzz to the general din.

She glanced back to her father, who was just now receiving his note. His said simply, “You know I love you Father. Vth”

It was the only completely honest note in the batch.

His shoulders relaxed and a small, happy smile played on his lips. He looked up and around for her. When he saw her, alone on the edge of the empty dance floor, he returned her sentiment with his glance. But then, as if realizing something, or perhaps just noticing how animated the room had become, he tilted his head and gave her a curious look. It was as if to say, What are you up to, Daughter?

 A long, piercing whistle shrieked through the gathering night, followed by an enormous concussive boom that drew out into a crackling rumble. The fireworks were beginning. Irresistibly, the crowd was drawn to the balcony that completely surrounded the great hall. Velator had looked away from her, and Velirith quickly slipped out the back of the great hall and down a service stair. She descended several floors, past where Moshalli and Fechua had their quarters, and found an isolated balcony that looked out over Garrist Ring. She leaned on the stone balcony rail with its ornate balusters. Velirith suddenly felt wistful.

The feeling of peace she had found in her conversation with Lhea Firstholm still held her, like a seed in the center of her chest. But around that was an indefinable yearning. Why did she always have this desire to be alone? And why did she thirst for mischief? How could she hold two such contradictory feelings simultaneously?

Garrist Ring had dimmed its lanterns below, and the fireworks were in full blossom. But something was odd around the Charlaise building across the gap. Handheld luzhril torches played around its base, as if the perimeter were being patrolled. Its roof lay just above the low balcony on which she stood.

A barrage of three blue and silver rockets exploded into spheres in front of her: A Vel Salute. Traditionally, each house was honored with at least one rocket displaying the colors of their house. The Vel Salute was eclipsed almost immediately by an enormous yellow blast on the roof of the Charlaise. That burst looked more like flame than a mag-luz discharge. It was so bright compared to any of the other detonations that it temporarily blinded her. She had been looking right at the building and saw—or thought she saw—a dark, bulbous silhouette against the flash just before the shape dropped down against the darker background of the building itself. Great gouts of fire bloomed into the air above the roof. She felt a slight push from the concussion of the blast, even from this distance.

By the time she got her vision back, she could see nothing of the mysterious shape. Just moments later, the show continued with a spectacular red and orange sunburst that lit the space between her and the buildings of Garrist Ring. The show went on, just as it always did.

[] Chapter Ten

 

It was the first shot that got him.

He had been staring down the barrel of that maggun, waiting for the inevitable crack of discharge, and desperately trying to turn enough to use his engine as a shield. But the magnetic field of the engine only slightly deflected the bolt up and through the inflated airfoil.

It ripped through the hydrogen envelope from one side straight through and out the other. For one intense blink, Kieler reflexively braced for an explosion above him. But maggun bolts were not particularly hot, and the only critical damage was the leaking hydrogen. He was now venting flammable gas in the midst of a fireworks show. Kieler looked back to the rooftop.

The other men, after a moment of orientation to the phenomenon of a flying ship, raised their weapons as well. More shots followed.

There was more commotion. A shout of warning. The men weren’t looking at him, but at the door to the roof. A scrawny outline, doubled-over for air and stumbling out of the door. It had to be a Bintle man. In a mere fraction of a second there was a sound of metal scraping on metal and then a series of pops. The three canisters immediately launched out in erratic paths of flame. One fateful missile arced in a tight loop and slammed into the rooftop right behind the man who had fired that first shot.

An enormous fireball erupted. The gunman was blown off the rooftop, engulfed in flame. From here he would not just fall the fifty-some stories to Garrist level, but many, many more—if he were lucky enough to miss all the various skyways and bridges on the way down. Not that it would matter much to his longevity.

The others, including the bank man, were now obscured by flame.

Kieler looked away in alarm. Of course he knew this could happen. But he wasn’t a hardened killer. It shook him.

It shook his craft as well. Though the fireball did not reach him, the shock wave did, propelling him into the gap and toward the palace. The venting gas was misshaping the airfoil, and he was in a rapid, uncommanded descent. Kieler could not reach the damage, nor could he fix the holes if he were able to. He was descending between the Charlaise building and the spire of the Executive Chair’s palace.

I may as well go for it. He had one tank of hydrogen on board for emergencies and it was already hooked into the airfoil envelope. Kieler opened the valve full and gas hissed into the airship. The best it could do was to slow the descent. He pointed his ship at the spire and picked a balcony to crash on—if he made it that far before transfiguring into a rock.

Despite the backup hydrogen, the airship barely maintained altitude. He was losing gas as fast as it was going in.

Kieler’s mind was full throttle and he revved the engine to match. He knew that keeping the airspeed as high as possible would also contribute to his lift and he might be able to get across the gap—if he didn’t run out of hydrogen first—or burn out his engine—or ignite in a firework blast—or get shot.

Engine burnout was the reason he hadn’t just flown in at high speed from farther away. A longer flight would have avoided all the unpleasantness of dealing with Feleanna’s ground thugs. But his technology wasn’t perfect and the compact motor tended to overheat. No need for fireworks if he could blow himself up just as well.

His plan had been a short flight above the fireworks allowing the highly reflective skin of his airship to look like just more lights in the sky. Now he was right in the path of the ascending rockets launched from the edge of Garrist Ring and he was under the exploding spheres of color.

On top of that he was leaking hydrogen.

This was just foolish. But what choice did he have?

In his head, Kieler had already worked out a new design that would allow the engine to remain cool, but he had not had time to build that new engine before tonight.

A rocket trail blasted upward in front of him. He throttled back and banked right to give it wide berth, but felt the drop in altitude from his loss of airspeed. The rocket passed and he throttled up, aiming back toward the Executive Chair’s palace. The shell exploded in a ball of red-orange lightning above. The globe of released energy fell toward him, but must have extinguished just feet above the venting hydrogen. Three more rocket trails spurted up to his right. Safe from their climb, he banked left to avoid the sparks from the explosion.

The next barrage came up on both sides. Again safe from their ascent, he found himself right in the middle of intersecting lightning spheres. That he hadn’t exploded already was unimaginable. Could I possibly make this?

He looked down and saw his luck had changed for the worse. He saw nothing but an approaching dot in a halo of fiery sparks. It was coming right at him. His mind racing, there was no course of action that would make a difference in the one second he had to react.

He braced for impact and heat.

Twenty feet below him, the missile looked as if it hit something solid, deflected horizontally and blasted sideways. It detonated at a relatively low altitude over the Garrist Promenade. Echoes of the explosion bounced off the buildings and the small, illuminated figures on the promenade ducked and scuttled away from the falling red and green bolts.

A miracle. The rocket must have lost a fin to deviate that drastically. It shouldn’t have happened…

He had no time to consider it. He banked left as a flurry of hot exhaust streams climbed to his right. The resultant blasts rained down near him and Kieler watched one of the ragged holes where he was losing hydrogen—as if he would even be able to flinch if one of the plasma spheres ignited it. But none did.

Time after time, the missiles missed him by an arm’s length ascending and by less descending. Surviving another dozen such barrages, he began to feel as if he were encased in an impenetrable bubble.

After dodging all those shells, he pressed through a smoke trail and saw the Executive Chair’s tower right in front of him. He banked hard left to avoiding hitting it.

He’d made it across! But his hope died as he realized he was below every balcony. The nearest and lowest was still ten ship-lengths above him.

It was at that moment, in a gap between echoing blasts, that the hiss of gas from his emergency tank ceased. He began dropping. He was out of hydrogen.

Without a moment of hesitation Kieler reached up and yanked a ripcord. The weight of the empty tank fell away and he felt the immediate sensation of upward acceleration. Still full throttle, he pulled up as steeply as he could toward the belly of the nearest balcony. He glanced at his motor and was suddenly aware of a red, glowing ring around the magal core. In a flash, he realized the highest threat to his survival was now his own engine—either it would melt down and quit, or ignite the hydrogen left in the envelope.

The airship now climbed straight up. He was approaching the balcony, then passing it just as fast. He had no time to jump and too much upward momentum. He wasn’t prepared.

He was even less prepared to see the startled oval face of a beautiful young lady leaning on the rail as he passed almost within arm’s reach of her. She pulled back, but amazingly did not cry out or run.

Then she was gone—falling behind as he zipped straight up past the best, and perhaps the only, landing spot he could hope for. There was nothing above him but the structure of the overhanging palace. And if he hit that, he had nothing to grab onto and would simply fall back into the abyss below.

But he was not going to hit it. As quickly as he had accelerated when he dumped the weight of the spare tank, the ship now lost momentum and began falling. He had no forward airspeed for lift. He was dropping straight back down the tower.

Kieler looked down, perhaps to gauge how long he would live on the fall to the Plate so far below. To his amazement, he saw he was about to hit a tree.

He did hit a tree. It stuck out from the balcony on which the young lady was standing. She had pushed over a large potted tree so that it leaned over the railing.

Kieler pushed himself from his seat and embraced it with open arms. His momentum nearly carried him through the thin upper branches and one of them scratched a painful cut across his cheek, but they caught him. His wounded shoulder screamed. The airship snagged for a moment, the envelope slowly ripping under the weight of the engine. Kieler, in a moment of panic, grabbed for it. He wanted his airship.

His fingers almost closed on a fold in the fabric, but he began to slip down toward the smaller branches. He didn’t need to be reminded there was no visible ground below him. He let the ship go.

It slid off the upper boughs of the toppled tree and slowly fell. Relieved of Kieler’s weight but still having lost too much gas, it moved as if in slow motion, sinking as if in water and spiraling awkwardly as the envelope collapsed. Kieler clung with both hands to thin branches, but his eyes followed his short-lived, beautiful machine as it tumbled. It wasn’t that far down when, during one of its limping swings, he saw the engine, still full throttle, dripping molten metal.

An instant later the remaining hydrogen ignited.

His fear of falling evaporated in the heat of the rising fireball directly beneath him.

[] Chapter Eleven

 

Despite the immediacy of the danger, Kieler felt frozen in the heat. Then the instant passed and he was scrambling down the trunk like a slink on a pipe. He hurled himself over the balcony rail as the winter-bare limbs of the tree caught fire behind him. Slamming onto his back on the balcony floor, he watched, fascinated, as the ball of fire flew past and continued upward until it blossomed on the underside of the palace. It burned itself out in grasping tendrils of flame. For a moment, all was dark.

His airship was gone.

He slowly turned his face toward the balcony doors.

There stood the quick-thinking young lady, staring down at him. She looked calm, even amused, her eyes sparkling green and gold in the reflection of a firework exploding behind him. He vaguely registered the colors of her clothing, blue and silver. She said nothing, and after a moment, spun and left the balcony, leaving him lying flat on his back.

He would have to find his own way from here.

Kieler felt blood dripping down his face, but the burning cut was nothing to being roasted. It was a precious reminder that somehow… he was still alive.

The tree that saved him was solidly anchored by its planter against the rail. The limbs that hung over were still burning like tiny candles. Whoever found this tree would have an interesting time explaining the phenomenon. He stood, but the adrenaline must have ebbed and his knees buckled, forcing him to catch himself against the balcony rail.

The empty space before him suddenly pressed into his awareness and he felt a wave of cold fear.

My ship… gone.

My life… Standing before the dark abyss below him and the smoking tree beside, the relative value of his life over his ship infused him with a profound sense of gratitude. He wiped the blood off his face with his hand, and wiped his hand on the railing. The flow was beginning to ebb.

Kieler turned toward the spire and entered through the balcony doors. Ahead of him was a bank of elevators that would take him up to the great hall. But first, he found a washroom and cleaned up.

 

 

The Executive Chair and the real Ortessi heir had actually met once before, one week after Orlazrus Ortessi’s birth. Kieler was pretty sure that Ek Threzhel would not recognize him.

On the short ride up the elevator, Kieler marveled that he actually seemed to have made it. So much had gone wrong: his seemingly precognitive tail, then being spotted on Garrist Ring, having holes shot through his airship followed by the flight through the fireworks, and finally nearly being roasted like a slink on a spit.

And yet, here he stood.

He wouldn’t have made it without the help of that young lady. Cute too. He had been tutored and quizzed extensively by Movus on all the important houses, their leaders and their progeny, their colors and corporations. Blue and silver was house Vel, Velator being the Prime with only one heir, his daughter, Lhea Velirith. Something had happened to all the other members of his family, though Movus had never told the story if he knew it.

So the young lady in blue and silver was probably Lhea Velirith. That she had helped him, thinking quickly by knocking that planter over, was another fortunate circumstance that bordered on supernatural. Why was she down there, with no protection, when everyone else was up at the party? And her unruffled amusement was not typical for such a young woman. That she left the scene when he seemed likely to survive was understandable considering his dramatic and clandestine arrival. His character and intentions would have been highly suspect and potentially violent. She might still turn me in. But he didn’t think so. Nevertheless, she was wise to leave.

But Kieler suspected she didn’t leave because she felt threatened by him. It was almost as if she didn’t want to have to explain herself.

The elevator doors slid open with a clanking of the twin, highly-polished, bronze doors. Kieler stepped out in the persona of the Ortessi Heir, his fine-woven uniform resplendent in green and gold (if a tad crumpled from his exertions). Over his heart he now wore the emerald luzhril and amber sigil of House Ortessi.

He stopped just outside the elevator and stood patiently, using the time before he was noticed to scan the room. The central dance floor, tiled in the traditional honeycomb pattern, stood empty. Everyone milled about on the terrace that surrounded the great hall, looking outward to watch the fireworks. The reception line had dispersed by this time, but because the fireworks held everyone’s attention, his entrance did not cause the stir he had expected. Though he knew the elevator doors were heavily guarded at the Garrist level, these had but one guard on either side who spared him only a curious glance.

Kieler spotted the Executive Chair’s booth and strode toward it. The Executive Chair was still in it, as if the fireworks he had provided did not warrant his interest. Four guards bracketed the booth and eyed Kieler warily as he approached. He stopped two paces before the seated Executive Chair, bowed stiffly from the waist, rose, and announced himself. “Orlazrus Ortessi, at your service.”

The Executive Chair, who had roused himself to sit closer to the edge of his seat as he noticed Kieler approaching, smiled a bit cynically.

Fechua MgFellis, recovering from her hesitation to introduce Orlazrus, remembered her duty. “Ek Threzhel, Prime of House Ek, and Executive Chair of the Avetoric Omeron.”

Threzhel commented, “Now the real fireworks begin, eh?”

Kieler allowed himself a slight smile despite the roiling in his stomach. This man is responsible for my parents’ deaths. Kieler tightened control of his thoughts and noticed the Executive Chair looking off behind him.

Turning, he saw Feleanna Cortatti briskly entering the hall. Resplendent in a gown of red and black, she had tamed her dark red hair into a snappy elegance. Flustered and blatantly fuming, she spotted her quarry safely sheltered in the guarded presence of the Executive Chair.

A giant explosion, both of noise and colored light, surrounded the great hall as the finale erupted around them, thick with the gold and purple that lauded house Ek. Appreciative oohs and aahs followed. As the spheres faded, the crowd turned, murmuring excitedly as they reentered the great hall. Suddenly and together, everyone seemed to notice the man in green and gold standing before the Executive Chair—and Feleanna seething twenty paces away. The excitement of the firework display dwindled into an expectant silence as the crowd froze, staring at the scions of two families who had so much history of conflict, now reunited on such a dramatic stage.

The timing couldn’t have been better. Kieler squelched the satisfied smile that wanted to burst out of him and glared murderously at Feleanna. She returned the stare openly, her flinty eyes glancing at the sigil on his chest. He could see the muscles of her jaw tighten as she clenched her teeth, biting down on her fury. She took a deep breath, then shifted brazenly to a more cavalier stance.

When Feleanna turned, head stiffly high in unadmitted defeat, it was a sign for everyone else to breathe again. Immediately two houses came scurrying forward; Margríte Merckle, literally pushing her two boys, one on either side of her; and Gippo and Gamielle Mizgot—although even a “scurry” was not very fast for these two lumbering frames.

It was comical. He knew both houses wanted to take credit for “discovering” the legitimate heir of House Ortessi. His presence destabilized Feleanna’s hold on an enormous amount of real estate, antiques, artifacts, and intellectual property previously belonging to House Ortessi. Any reduction of her wealth would diminish her capacity for aggression. Therefore the appearance of the Ortessi Heir would be beneficial to the Executive Chair, who knew Feleanna was after his position. Because the Merckles and Mizgots were dependent on the favor of house Ek, their relationship with the Executive Chair was crucial to their status.

Movus had perfectly played these two houses against each other. Running an agency of spies from beneath the Plate, Movus had earned a reputation as a provider of reliable information across house boundaries. Kieler and Movus had fed one of Mizgot’s spies tainted information that Orlazrus Ortessi, the lost heir, was being courted rather cheaply by House Merckle, to be used as political leverage with the Executive Chair. The Mizgots, adept at buying favorable regulatory and financial influence, immediately outbid the Merckles for Orlazrus Ortessi to act as their comrade in gaining the Executive Chair’s ear.

Considering Kieler, who gave most of the bribe to Movus, was neither the legitimate nor even the illegitimate son of House Ortessi, the sum was exceedingly generous. But it was the access to the Executive Chair and this evening’s gala that he was really after. Access to the inner circle. And the endorsement of two very powerful families.

The Mizgots built the vehicles that rode the rails of the tram and powercoach lines. They had been the largest economic power in all Zotikas at one time—until the economy had declined.

The Merckles were currently rising on a wave of political socialization. They ran health care facilities of all types. Ten years ago the Executive Chair and the Omeron had granted government funds for the Merckles to run free clinics. Other medical businesses couldn’t compete with free, nor could they navigate the maze of paperwork required of non-government sanctioned facilities. As competitors failed, the Merckles gained patients whose bill were paid by the Omeron.

One family of doctors, the Sendaris, was now living under the Plate. Kieler had met them, and since good medical services were scarce in the underworld, Indis Sendari was making a better living on the black market than he had fighting government subsidies and regulations above the Plate.

Margríte Merckle bustled into range. “Your Chairness, this is the man! My sons and I have been trying to arrange an introduction—“

“We are introduced, Margríte, just now,” interrupted the Executive Chair. She looked put off, glancing at her sons. 

The Mizgot’s, finally arriving across the floor, took a slightly different tack. Puffing, Verr Gippo Mizgot rhapsodized to the Executive Chair, “This man is the legitimate owner of our great Theater! Verr Executive Chair, I believe a revival in culture would further solidify your claim to leading the greatest cultural and economic boom since Velik himself!”

The fawning was sickening to Kieler, but that’s why he was here; to crunch these insects like so many skynuts. Looking over the two new arrivals, he was surprised that despite Gamielle Mizgot’s top-heavy build, her dress was tenuously suspended by thin straps. Perhaps she considered them a touch of elegance.

Rather than let the sycophantic behavior continue interminably, Kieler interjected with intentional softness, so that they had to lean forward to hear. “Hello, friends. Thank you for your kind words. But my claim to my family’s past holdings has some obstacles to overcome.” He flashed a glance toward Feleanna. “Perhaps the Executive Chair would aid me in the reestablishment of some of my family’s property and business. But now is not the time to discuss these things.”

The Executive Chair nodded. With half-lidded eyes he looked at the two obsequious families before him as if they were not to be trusted with information as delicate as what was for dinner. He spoke to Kieler. “Good to see you passed the test of getting here. You’re not much use if you can’t live to see the new year,” the Executive Chair said, illuminating the harsh reality. “But you’ve not re-met any of your family’s old friends, have you? Friends, I’m afraid, that didn’t help your family much twenty years ago. Perhaps they’ve changed some. Shall we see?”

Kieler didn’t respond immediately. He eyed the Executive Chair with practiced coolness. Below the surface, Kieler realized that while the Ortessi’s “friends” had let his family die at the hands of the Cortattis, the Executive Chair himself had let Kieler’s mother die in the death trap where Ek processed magal. Tightly controlling his voice, Kieler said, “I think I can tolerate that, sir.”

Kieler, of course, wanted nothing more than to be introduced as the Ortessi Heir to every head family. His main purpose in being here was to endorse his legitimacy and improve his sponsorship. These two families just wanted to use him to increase their standing with the Executive Chair. The Mizgots had huge wealth, but were falling in favor so fast that they were more influenza than influential. Other houses were trying to disassociate themselves from them, particularly the Bintles.

The Merckles, on the other hand, were rising stars. Considering they were physicians and obviously politically cunning, Kieler found them alarmingly naïve. Movus and he had leveraged their influence easily because of this quality. The current generations of Merckles had never struggled to build a quality business. They had no street wisdom.

Both these families followed sullenly as the Executive Chair moved with his characteristic lack of urgency toward a nearby table.

“These are Borgus and Balfani Telander. They produce the generators and control the power plants of our city,” Threzhel offered. Kieler felt his chest tighten at the introduction. Every house in attendance had an indictment against them, but Telander—his crime was personal. His secret penchant for kidnapped women, particularly Bags’ wife, struck to the heart of why Kieler was here.

The Telanders stood for the Executive Chair, and Borgus extended his arm to grasp Kieler’s. The man looked very much like the EC himself. Rounded, shrinking in stature with a puffy face, wearing the same bored expression. Kieler knew that there was little love between these two men. As soon as House Ek had taken office they had boosted the price of magal. And just this year someone had revealed that the recent magal shortage claimed by House Ek was actually a fraud enacted to raise the price yet again.

Movus had told Kieler that Balfani, Borgus’ wife, resented the Executive Chair bitterly because his price hikes cut into the profits generated by their power plants. Evidently, they also cut into her rather extravagant life style.

Kieler noticed that despite the “hard times”, neither of them had starved. He also noticed that Balfani, her face lined with angry wrinkles, was glaring fiercely at the EC.

“I knew your father, Salman,” Borgus nodded, referring to the former Ortessi patriarch. “Shame he died so young.”

“I’m told his name was Salasan,” Kieler replied, recognizing the feeble test to his claim. “But I did not know him. He was killed when I was only two.”

Borgus nodded, looking at him with the same half-closed eyes that the Executive Chair used. “So you don’t believe the prattle about an accident, eh?”

“No. Only a year ago I pursued what investigation I could, being twenty years passed, and it did not even look like they tried to fake it. It seems it simply couldn’t be proven that it was the Cortattis.”

“You speak plainly enough,” replied Borgus. “You’ll never make a good politician.”

Kieler took a chance. “Neither will you, sir,” he countered with a smile.

The Executive Chair laughed, thankfully, and as he started to lead Kieler away, Balfani Telander made a rather bizarre comment. She blurted, “Don’t think you can get in my good graces with empty flattery in a silly New Year’s Note, Ek Threzhel!”

The Executive Chair gave her a curious look, but did not retort. As they walked away, Kieler asked him what she meant.

 The Executive Chair shrugged. “Speak plainly or speak and make no sense. I find it better not to speak much at all these days.” Then he lowered his voice so that only Kieler could hear. “But don’t you get too cheeky, Ortessi. We politicians still need fighters for the arena.”

Kieler turned his head to the Executive Chair, but the man wasn’t looking back at him. The threat was direct, but the warning at least made it very clear what Kieler’s limits were in this new relationship. It all served as a reminder that the Executive Chair was no one’s friend. The Chair had no knowledge that he had, indirectly, killed Kieler’s mother. Nor would he care if he did. The man’s only concern was that Feleanna was getting too powerful. Kieler should be able to use that fear to get into his good graces and exploit him.

The frightening aspect of Kieler’s game was that the Executive Chair had played it successfully for fifty-some years. Kieler was a brash, no-name challenger.

Allies. That’s what Kieler needed.

“Should we go see Feleanna then?” offered the Executive Chair rather cruelly.

“No, sir. I want to be clear which side I am not on,” Kieler answered.

“Good.” The Executive Chair seemed to treat the subsequent introductions as a play put on for his own personal amusement. But Kieler was not amused and neither was his alter ego Orlazrus. Nevertheless, the fact that the Executive Chair was actually taking him around personally fitted Kieler’s purpose nicely. He was introduced to several more houses.

His final introduction to the Bintles was eventful. The eldest were in poor health and not in attendance. Their son, Carrenten Bintle, a young man only a handful of years older than Kieler, was now in charge of the Omeron’s financial system. His wife, Serru, was stunning in an elegant but revealing gown.

“Pleasure, Ortessi,” Carrenten Bintle said grasping his arm firmly. “You’ll shake things up around here!”

“What do you mean?” Kieler asked.

“I mean we’ll see some action. Undoubtedly, Feleanna won’t let you dance in here like a stodgy old house incumbent. You’re going to have to be on your toes to avoid them being stepped on.”

Kieler smiled. The man was arrogant and direct, but he liked him. Only Borgus was as direct, but Borgus was jaded and cynical. Carrenten was looking for adventure, if a bit recklessly. Kieler responded with a prodding directness of his own. “Could my conflict with House Cortatti affect House Bintle in any way?”

Laughing, Carrenten replied, “Well, it might blow the tops off a few more of my buildings. But I don’t think so. You didn’t miss that unplanned firework, did you?”

Kieler had no idea if Carrenten Bintle knew of his connection to the explosion. Actually, Carrenten couldn’t know. But the banking king was certainly amused by the detonation even though it would cost him some dras. But if you’re the guy that prints the money…

Kieler doubted he hid his own reaction very well to Bintle’s words. He replied casually, “I may have caught part of it…”

Suddenly Kieler was aware of Serru Bintle, standing just behind her husband, boring into him with her eyes. Not unfriendly, but certainly aggressive.

“She likes mystery men,” Carrenten said, looking sidelong at his wife, who was still staring at Kieler. “I should know. I used to be one.”

She spoke curtly, “How did you get that cut?”

There was something not right about this woman. Interesting that it was she who was first to ask about the cut he got in the tree. “Knife fight in the elevator.” Kieler tried to look serious.

Carrenten laughed, but Serru Bintle just nodded and licked her lips. “Looks like you fell out of a tree.”

There was another laugh behind him, a laugh that he enjoyed hearing. He and the Executive Chair turned, and there, next to a handsome middle-age man also in blue and silver, was the girl with the tree.

Still amazingly bored, the Executive Chair muttered, “Velator and his daughter Velirith. This is Orlazrus Ortessi.”

Kieler gave a slight bow, keeping eye contact with Velator and then grasping his arm in formal greeting. He knew instinctively that Velirith had not told her father about the incident on the balcony below. He also noted that unlike the other House Primes, Velator was not wearing a house sigil.

“Pleasure to meet you, Verr Ortessi.”

“Sure,” Velirith cut in with a blatant scoff. “Conveniently dropped in, didn’t he?” She didn’t believe he was Orlazrus.

The Executive Chair scowled at Velator’s daughter, perhaps at her impertinence, but his next words were those of revelation. “Ortessi, how did you get here? My men were at the palace tram station to escort you up and bring you to me. Yet you arrived without them.”

“Sir, may I get by with the excuse that my course was unconventional? With several unwelcoming parties, I may have to slip out the same way.”

The Executive Chair consented with a grunt, but was obviously unhappy that someone could actually sneak into his palace past his personal guards and Feleanna’s thugs.

But Velirith muttered, “I’d like to see that departure.”

Kieler clenched his jaw to hide his embarrassment. Velator gave his daughter a curious look but let it go, probably fearing the answer in front of the EC.

“Ortessi,” said the Executive Chair in a dismissive way, “You’ve been introduced. You’re in the dance, by the way, position twenty-one. See me before you leave.” And he walked back to his booth.

Kieler bowed, and when the Executive Chair was out of earshot, Carrenten said, “Sounds like you’re in trouble.”

Grinning, Kieler replied, “Could be worse. I could have fallen out of that tree your wife had me climbing.”

Carrenten Bintle laughed but pointed out, “Look Ortessi, you’ve avoided a straight answer to every question.” Kieler smiled to himself that Borgus had made the opposite comment. “What are you up to?”

“I’ll give you a straight answer to that one, Verr Bintle. Coming out at this party has made me completely vulnerable. Feleanna’s thugs will follow me wherever I go tonight and they will unceremoniously kill me. So I’m looking for a refuge, a benefactor. Can you handle taking me in for a while?”

Completely taken aback, Carrenten thought soberly. Although he did not look at her, Kieler could tell he was thinking about his wife. Perhaps he feared her attraction to “mystery men”. But Kieler thought it something else, as if it was Carrenten’s nature to do something just this risky, but at a cost to Serru’s stability.

“We’ll take you in, Verr Ortessi,” Velator spoke up unexpectedly, taking the heat off Carrenten.

“No, father! He’s a fraud!” Velirith blurted with complete conviction.

“Shush, Velirith,” Velator said in a steady voice, obviously accustomed to her bluntness. “I have intuition too and I think we should give him a place to stay.”

Velirith looked back and forth between Kieler and her father, evaluating. Then she sullenly agreed, but not without a steady, accusing look at Kieler.

Kieler made a mental note to be on guard with her. She seemed to see right through him.

“True to the house of Vel!” exclaimed Carrenten. “Gathering together the wanderers of the world.”

Fechua, the social coordinator, interrupted from the front of the dance floor. “The Family Harmony Dance begins in just a few moments! Ladies and gentlemen, take your assigned spots. My daughter and I will assist in placing you in your starting positions. Get ready!”

[] Chapter Twelve

 

Velirith spoke to Kieler as they walked out to the center, “You have been coached on how to do the New Year’s Family Harmony Dance, true? I’d hate for you to mess this up like your arrival. You might end up dancing with someone ugly.”

Kieler assured her that he had been well coached, and they split up, Velirith taking a position across the circle from him next to Gamielle Mizgot.  The Executive Chair and his wife marked the top of the circle nearest the EC’s booth.

Eighty dancers were marshaled into two concentric circles around the center of the hexagonal dance floor; men in the outer circle, ladies in the inner one. The numbers matched precisely, each man with one lady.

When everyone had assembled, Fechua called out, “Please face and address your partners…” The men and ladies bowed to each other.

Kieler was paired with Balfani Telander, but knew that the pairing would be short lived. It was the final partner with whom one spent most of the dance. Kieler bowed, “My pleasure, Lhea Telander.” She bowed back, still looking miffed about something. Kieler considered the strong possibility that her scowl was a permanent feature. He also wondered whether Velirith had cursed him with her “ugly” comment.

Fechua continued, “And prepare to dance with someone new!” Some near Kieler smirked at the “someone new” part, knowing the dance was rigged, and that everyone would end up with someone inoffensive. Occasionally a single young lady would end up paired with a hopeful young man, and they would get to enjoy an anticipatory thrill. But mostly the old couples knew they would be paired with some old ally and not a hated rival.

With that, Fechua gave a quick triple clap and the orchestra began playing the traditional, upbeat waltz that had been played for centuries. After the intro, the men immediately skipped counterclockwise one position, and the ladies did likewise in the other direction. Since both circles moved opposite each other, the dancers always passed one person to end up with the next. Thus the two groups, odds and evens, would never mix. If Kieler was an odd, he noted mentally, then Feleanna was an even. They would pass, but never dance. The social coordinator had done her research well.

After each one-position rotation the new partners did a four measure pas-de-deux, bowed, and then rotated again.

Kieler knew he would be watched carefully. After all, everyone one of the dancers except him had seen the dance if not participated in it. They had likely attended this event since they were twelve years of age. He had never seen it. They’d be watching to see if he messed up.

But he wouldn’t. Movus had been his coach. Knowing that all eyes would be on him, he had practiced in the dim chambers of the under-Plate until he was bored silly with the simple dance. By his third partner, Kieler was sure enough of himself that he glanced around during the rotation.

The Executive Chair, he saw, was not “skipping” one bit. He was sauntering, doing just enough to stay in position so as not to disturb the status quo of the dance. Everyone played their part, practiced, and rather dull. And this was supposed to be the highlight of the evening?

About a quarter of the way around the circle, Kieler converged with Velirith. Wary and intrigued with the young woman, he desperately tried to think of something to say in the four measures they would spend together. So much about her was unusual:  She wore an attractive variant of the Vel uniform and not an evening gown like the other young debutantes. Her every behavior indicated she wasn’t going to play like the other Omeron. And, looking into her face, her eyes were unlike anyone’s he had ever seen. Where her father had the silver-grey common to house Vel, hers were so silver they reflected colored light like crystal.

And right now, as they touched hands in the dance, those eyes seemed to convey a very readable, barely-contained excitement. What it meant, Kieler had no idea.

“So you don’t trust me,” he stated, wishing he could have thought of something more positive.

But her casual answer was an odd denial. “No, truly, I do trust you. I just don’t believe you. Whereas you should always believe me—just don’t trust me.” The smile on her enchanting face conveyed her meaning almost better than her words.

Having nothing to say to such a cryptic comment, Kieler watched Velirith spin away from him, still wearing that charming, roguish smile matching the one in her eyes.

Though there were many more rotations before the anticipated change in music from regal waltz to light and playful lilt, Kieler knew he wouldn’t be dancing with Velirith again, and he felt an unexpected twinge of disappointment.

It was shortly after dancing with Velirith that something happened.

Kieler heard a short, startled scream and looked over to see Gamielle Mizgot suddenly grab her current partner and press the shorter man to her bosom. Her partner was easily half-a-head shorter than she and instantly turned redder than Feleanna’s hair. While the rest of the dancers kept on out of sheer momentum, Kieler wondered at Gamielle’s break from the age-old propriety of the dance. Then he saw that one of her slender shoulder straps hung limply down to her waist.

Gamielle wasn’t the only one who couldn’t contain herself. Kieler bit his lower lip to keep from laughing.

Gamielle half danced, half dragged her runtish partner off the floor and toward the nearest corridor leading to the powder room. Kieler glanced across the circle at Gippo. Gamielle’s husband was obviously concerned but not enough to risk looking bad by abandoning his position to help his wife. The dance goes on, Kieler thought with disgust.

The next rotation occurred almost smoothly as the couples closed the gap and tightened the circle. Kieler couldn’t decide if that was talented dancing or callousness toward the missing couple.

During the rotation, he happened a glance at Fechua just off the dance floor. Her face was a frozen mask of utter horror, her hands stopped in mid-air between claps. In a moment he understood, more instinctively than logically.

This altered the pairings. Would they now be truly random? That could be interesting. More alert, he wondered, what could be so bad?

With each rotation, spreading both ways from the missing couple, odds were now dancing with evens, and evens were dancing at odds.

Still, things were not horrible. After four rotations, eight couples were mis-paired and none seemed to be particularly bitter rivals.

But it was like a wheel of fate. Where would it stop?

Kieler saw Ferdando Ashperis looking down the circle. The handsome young man caught the eye of Callia and they were unabashedly thrilled that they were converging with a distinct chance they could end up together. Callia actually raised her hands to her face to cover a surprised but excited flush.

The onlookers from the sidelines were rising to their feet in a growing buzz of excited murmuring. Other dancers were trying to figure it out, looking ahead to see who they might get paired with. Kieler spied Forcheso Parchiki, the look of concern on his face twisting into outrage.

As Kieler moved with each rotation, the crowd noise around them grew. Everyone was on their feet.

He suddenly realized, as the music began to transition, that this couldn’t be random; it was somehow cleverly deliberate. And that begged the monumental question, had the secret planner destined someone for him?

The intensity of the music grew as if the musicians sensed impending disaster. He tried to peer between the women but now didn’t have the angle. There was a long fermata to allow the dancers to adjust their steps to their final partner, the circle made its final rotation, and from behind another large matron came his ultimate partner.

Feleanna.

Kieler lost composure, stumbling into position. This whole thing must have been rigged just to embarrass him. But Feleanna was just as outraged, if not more! And the other couples… Kieler didn’t know all their histories.

The crowd around them was in uproar. Shouts. “What nerve!” “How indecent!”

Face to face with Feleanna Cortatti, he and she were supposed to bow in the extended notes before the next movement. Neither did.

Her features sharp and her deep red dress exquisite and sensual, the heated flush would have been beautiful—had not every degree of hatred been blazing to consume him. Her flint-green eyes shot daggers, and her perfect smile was more of a smirk that said, “this night’s not over till you are dead!”

Kieler was not prepared. He felt weak, but rallied his bravado to counter her deadly glare with a look of arrogant amusement, trying to pretend as if it were he who arranged this whole fantastic debacle.

As the music re-started, they, like puppets to its lilt, came together for the first sequence, the men escorting the ladies around the small domain in which they would spend the rest of their term. Thinking as fast as his confusion would allow, he held her arm and looked at her like a secret lover.

Fuming, Feleanna seemed to be gathering for an explosion. But she held off, like a balloon filling beyond its limits. Her first words, however, were not the vitriol he expected. “How did you get that sigil through the magnetic Eks?”

Caught completely off guard, Kieler fought to hide his surprise.

She bared her teeth again in disdainful mirth. “You didn’t know, did you? Which means…” She trailed off, piecing something together. “You ill-witted usurper. That sigil, and Vel’s, are the only ones not crafted out of precious metals. Velik and the first Ortessi hated the sigils, so they mounted the jewels in a base metal, iron, to evoke humility. You’re the first, blatantly arrogant Ortessi to ever wear a sigil to this gala.” She spat a short laugh, letting it sink in that his mission of the night before was, in a way, pointless.

Kieler knew he went red, but a retort came easy to his tongue. “And of course, your contempt of sigils is evident by your coveted collection.”

The reference to his intrusion of her home stoked her rage. “No one violates our keep and lives. No one mocks Cortatti!

As Kieler processed the information and the threat, Feleanna took advantage of his distraction, and while ostensibly raising her arms to twirl, she speared her fingers into his wounded shoulder.

Since landing in the tree, it hadn’t hurt much.

He clenched his teeth and writhed to stop from screaming.

Thankfully, the next few measures had them twirling away from each other followed by a hesitation. He used the respite to push away the pain in his shoulder and regain his situational awareness.

Not far down the circle of paired dancers was the ashen-faced Executive Chair and, raging red, Balfani Telander. Evidently, Kieler and Feleanna were not the only victims. Balfani stood stock still, refusing to dance and yet refusing to walk away. Ek Threzhel was lamely moving through the steps, clearly baffled at how to respond to such a calamity. If this had been a rebellion in his magal mines, he’d know what to do. But this was a social crisis.

With a quick double-take to the other side, Kieler saw Forcheso Parchiki and Sindia Corch dancing, if it could be called that, on the floor—horizontally. There was no pretense as they all-out wrestled and punched, the nasty Cortatti giving the older Parchiki an even match. Amazingly, no-one tried to break them up. The guards looked at each other completely stymied.

Feleanna reclaimed his attention as the next moves brought them close again. She added gloating and cursing as her repartee degraded to base abuse. “You ignorant imposter! You coming here is like checking yourself into a butcher shop on a hook. I’ll grind you up like kovar meat!” she hissed. “Maggot infested, fetid, trampled, kovar meat!”

That barrage helped take his mind off the pain. He had, after all, worked with underworld roughs since adolescence. He knew how to insult. “What fetching words. Fetching Feleanna! And what’s that fragrance you’re wearing? Eau d’grevon? Or have you been bathing in wine? It’s quite becoming—”

She, evidently, had not acquired a tolerance for being insulted, and her anger flared into a barely controlled assault. In between what were supposed to be close and conversational waltz steps, she slapped him at the finish of each turn. After the first two, Kieler knew when to duck. He managed to catch and stubbornly hold her high hand, keeping his other hand boldly on her well-muscled hip.

The verbal banter disappeared as they both concentrated on dancing and bashing each other. Even as he did so, he wondered why everyone continued the façade of the dance. Propriety?!

She aimed an in-time, close-in kick to his groin, and he had to let go of her hip and yank her to one side to avoid it. The crowd was screaming. While continuing his defensive dancing, he could hear several couples flat out yelling at each other.

What amazed him most was that the dance went on. Fechua must have decided that to stop it would be the worst social faux pas. A glance at the Executive Chair told Kieler the man was befuddled into inaction. No one else dared the authority to step in.

Feleanna was swinging again, and all gentlemanly manners aside, Kieler crushed her high hand in his grip and bent it backward, trying not to make it look obvious to the crowd. He knew if he walked away she would club him and if he backed away he’d look weak. She was probably thinking the same thing about herself.

How long will this dance go on!

Avoiding another kick, he failed to see her free hand until it cuffed his ear. It rang. Trying to gain control, he spun her in close and tightened his hold on her stomach, pinning her arm between them. He heard the breath go out of her. This position meant he was pressed into her back, but at least she couldn’t bite him.

Instead, she stomped her heel into his instep. The orchestra crescendoed toward a climax. In fierce pain he spun her away with both hands. Her posterior hit the floor just as the musicians hit the final, accented chord.

The crowd fell dead silent. The dancers quieted too, all except for the Callia girl who was now crying uncontrollably and hysterically shouting, “User! Manipulator!”

Feleanna lay splayed on the floor, her red dress torn, sweat dripping from her face as she propped herself on one arm.

Kieler was in shock. He realized his mouth was open but just then glanced left and forgot to close it. He saw Velirith in her father’s arms, smiling sweetly up at Velator.

But Velator was in speechless shock as well. A frozen look of terror was pasted on his face, as if he was holding a demon instead of his lovely daughter.

In the silence, Kieler thought he heard Velator croak, “How?

[] Author’s Notes

 

Thank you for reading the first episode of the Zotikas series. We are excited that you have decided to take this journey with us! The story continues in [+ Zotikas – Episode 2: High Rails of Ardan+]. Now Available!

 

Kieler has publicly declared himself to be Orlazrus, lost heir of House Ortessi. He isn’t, but the masquerade still places him in the crosshairs of the most dangerous woman alive: Feleanna, leader of the same House that wiped out the real Ortessis years ago. Adding fuel to the fire of Feleanna’s wrath, Velirith, scion of House Vel, perpetrated a ruinous prank, publicly shaming the most elite figures of society and Feleanna most of all.

Forced into the protection of House Vel, Kieler flees Avertori with Velirith and Velator aboard the fastest powercoach on rails. But even thousands of miles away, as Kieler explores the ingenious mountain citadel of Velakun, the invisible claws of House Cortatti reach out to crush them.

The pain of retribution is coming…

 

Also, be sure to visit us at www.zotikas.com for news and more information about [+ Zotikas – Episode 3: Attraction and Repulsion+], and our upcoming release of Zotikas – Episode 4


Clash of Heirs - Zotikas: Episode 1

Avertori was once a wonder of the industrial age, filled with mechanical marvels and extravagant art. Built at the crossroads of three continents, it was here that humanity harnessed the elements of power and wrought one marvel after another. Towering art deco architecture and locomotives the size of ocean liners typified the era. But these wonders slowly decay. After centuries of corruption only echoes of that time remain. Most people are now little more than serfs, bought and sold by the great trade houses. Others have it even worse. KIELER, exiled to Avertori’s underworld as a child, is now an agent of a criminal organization known as the Coin. Flying his homemade airship to society’s premier event of the year, he intends to bring down the ruling Omeron from the inside. He dreams of freedom for his comrades and revenge for the family he has lost. FELEANNA, known as the Red Dragon of House Cortatti, is disgusted by the weakness she sees in the other houses. Convinced that she alone is worthy to rule, she will stop at nothing until the other houses fall before her. VELIRITH, raised far away in her family’s city of Velekun, hates everything political. Unfortunately, as sole heir of House Vel, her involvement in inevitable. So she makes it her personal mission to expose the hypocrisy of the other houses, embarrassing them in the most explosive way possible. Airships burn, magnetic projectiles fly, maglev trains careen, and dancers brawl in this dramatic first incursion into ZOTIKAS!

  • Author: Rob Storey
  • Published: 2016-10-24 05:20:12
  • Words: 35787
Clash of Heirs - Zotikas: Episode 1 Clash of Heirs - Zotikas: Episode 1