The captain of the Lusus was on shore leave on Seo Cire. He was so deep in his cups that his first officer worried that at any moment, Lees Tarillion would climb up onto the bar and perform a stirring rendition of The Emperor’s Red Red Arse, thus implicating himself in treason as well as general disorderly conduct.
Oh no. It’s happening. Jeq saw Tarillion stand up, put a foot on the table leg, and begin to hoist himself up.
Still in nondescript civilian clothes, Jeq discreetly made his way towards his captain. He was about to place a hand on Tarillion’s back when Tarillion swiveled around, grabbed Jeq’s wrist and lifted it in the air.
“Jeq burrii!” Tarillion shouted in slurred Cirish. “Burrii Jeq!”
The crowd around the bar cheered, thumping their feet and pounding their glasses of mead on the countertop hard enough to make rain sheet off the awnings. The air smelled of spoiled mead and artificial rain and mold, and the lights of the underground city trembled above the drunken patrons.
“Sir,” said Jeq, alarmed.
“Sing,” Tarillion ordered, swinging a half-filled mug at him. “Get up there and sing, Jeq!”
“I’m not sure that’s a good–”
“Consider it a direct order,” said Tarillion in a quiet, firm voice, suddenly speaking perfectly enunciated Canonic. “Get up there. Now.”
And that was how Jeq Isser, first officer of the Imperial guardship Lusus, ended up standing on a bar top, belting an off-key version of The Emperor’s Red Red Arse at the top of his lungs.
Tarillion hid his grin in his mug and turned to his partner, a buxom woman with Cirish eyes and a veil half-tucked over her hair. “And now,” he said. “To business.”
“Ah yes, to business!” she smiled and beckoned to him. “The crowd will take care of your…friend?”
“He can take care of himself,” Tarillion replied, finishing the last of his mead. “He’s young, but capable.”
“You’re not that old yourself. Let’s go, then,” she said, tilting her head to the side, indicating a path through the crowd that was growing around Jeq’s feet. The young officer was looking increasingly panicked. He’d launched into the song’s second verse, detailing the finer aspects of His Majesty’s hindquarters.
He’ll be all right. After all…the Academy’s supposed to prepare officers for any situation. Tarillion smiled again. He could use some loosening up.
Tarillion followed the woman smoothly, with a light, easy step. As captain of the Lusus it had been a long time since he’d had feminine company, and he found himself looking forward to being truly alone with her.
Even if there was another reason he sought the woman’s company.
They wove through the teeming underworld, one mile down from the surface of Seo Cire. It was a network of densely populated underground caverns, filled with shops and people both rich and poor. It was always damp down here, the moisture acummulating into a neverending drizzle that drenched its inhabitants. It smelled like earth and mildew and a hint of rancid oil, but Tarillion had learned to like it over the years of patrolling the Seo system.
As the captain of the guardship Lusus, it was Tarillion’s Lords-given responsibility to watch and protect the worlds within the Seo, Neo, and Ultaxe systems. The three systems were on the frontier–well, the frontier as it currently stood, considering that the Empire was always expanding–and Imperial presence was light. Most officers fought to escape a frontier assignment as quickly as they could. The frontier was a good place to launch a career, but to stay there more than two years was suicide.
It had been eight years since Tarillion had taken up the post.
He watched the form of the woman moving ahead of him. He had no regrets. There was little death or glory out here, and that’s precisely what he wanted after Bespiuhiri.
Oblivion for his career, and a few more quiet decades of service to the fleet. Then he could die and be remembered as a single footnote in its history, as the hero of Bespiuhiri.
Jeq had been surprised and a little dismayed that his captain had chosen to take shore leave on Seo Cire. He’d insisted on coming with him as an escort, which Tarillion appreciated but occasionally resented. It was hard to truly enjoy oneself with a straight-laced officer fresh from the Academy wincing every time he did something fun.
But that wasn’t why he’d gotten rid of Jeq. What he needed to do now required trust, and Jeq would only be a distraction.
The woman took him up a rickety, winding staircase to a dark den of a room. It was barely enough to contain a bed, a food heater, and a few glowing lamps. The place was clean, though small, and it was she who made the first move, slinging him down on the bed with one easy push.
“I thought we could talk first,” he said, edging himself onto his elbows. “You know…get to know each other.”
“I didn’t buy you that drink so we could talk,” she said, tugging off her veil and dropping it to the floor.
“Ah, but I need to practice my Cirish.”
“Your Cirish is fine.” She slid onto the bed next to him. “I like your off-world accent,” she added, with a half-lidded smile.
“Do you speak Canonic?” he asked, as she toyed with his collar.
“Mm. Yes,” she said, clearly distracted.
“Impressive. Where did you learn it?”
She shrugged. “Oh, I picked it up somewhere. When I was younger, working the trade lines between Tyne and Cire.”
“Trade lines. What kind of trade? Mead? Scarves?” he smiled at her.
“You must think I’m terribly boring to suggest I made my living in scarves.” Her voice held mock offense.
This is getting nowhere. Ah, well, perhaps she’ll be more amenable after.
Tarillion leaned in, and she smiled and tossed her hair back. She closed her eyes, opened her lips, and–
Fell onto the bed as if asleep.
“For Lordssakes,” Tarillion muttered. “I’m not that bad in bed.”
“This is a very poor use of your shore leave,” said a woman’s voice in the shadows.
Tarillion recognized that voice. He contemplated throwing himself through the apartment’s tiny window. If I dislocate my arm, I just might make it through the window frame.
He laid back on the bed next to the sleeping woman, folding his hands over his chest. “What a man does on shore leave is his own business.”
“Except that you weren’t conducting your own business. You’re trying to infiltrate the black market trade in weapons between Cire and the arms dealers on Duré. You’re not authorized to do that.” The woman emerged, her head covered in a loose black hood.
“The Lusus is the only guardship within four systems. I’m only doing my duty.”
“Your duty is to keep the Vehn away and local insurrections down. That’s all.”
Tarillion shrugged. “Keeping weapons out of the hands of trigger-happy natives is a good way of stopping insurrections.”
“And I suppose a misplaced sense of noblesse oblige isn’t playing any part in this? Such as when you freed all those enslaved miners on Ultaxe a year ago? Their owners could have filed a complaint–”
Tarillion crossed his arms. “I don’t tell you how to do your job. Kindly return the favor, madame.”
Comtesse Tamae Walis smiled down at Tarillion. “It’s good to see you too, Lees.”
“Could you have left the poor girl alone, at least?”
Walis studied the woman’s prone form. “It was just a little tranquilizer. She’ll wake up in a few hours with a bad hangover. Besides, based on the information you were after, I’d hardly call her a ‘poor girl.’ More like a merchant of death. And quite wealthy, to boot.” The comtesse bent over, and plucked a small dart out of the woman’s neck.
“What brings you out to the frontier?” he sighed.
“I’ve come to find you.”
“The answer is no. As it always is.”
“You can’t hide out here forever. You’re still a member of the Gray Guard, like it or not. We have need of you.”
Tarillion could feel a headache coming on. He squeezed the bridge of his nose. “It’s been eight years since Bespiuhiri. I’ve been stuck out here on the frontier the entire time. Surely there are better candidates for whatever you–”
“It’s that AI of yours.”
Tarillion sat up. “Nekomata?”
“Whatever you call it.”
“The cat’s fine. Left it on the ship so I could have a proper shore leave. It’s running screening tests on the engines.” Tarillion was wary.
“Not that one.” Her eyes glinted. “The one you sent away from Bespiuhiri. The one you set free. The one you hoped no one would ever find out about.”
Tarillion tensed. Tamae saw the small movement. He knew better than to try to deny the truth now.
“What of it?” he asked, as steadily as he could.
“It’s gone insane, Lees. And you’re the only one who can kill it.”