January 2829, Imperial Standard Reckoning
Imperial Palace, Nova Alexandria, EARTH
Elena was dead.
The fact struck him again like a whip as they reached the ballroom. Eun Alba stopped to collect himself. His reflection wavered ghostlike in the silver-veined marble pillar next to him. It showed neither anguish nor fury. It was a mask.
Elena died believing she was disgraced. Eun Alba watched his reflection twist into an expression of rage. Elena was dead, damn it! The marble felt cool and unyielding beneath his fingertips. She would be avenged, he vowed to himself.
"You all right, Jaguar?" Jaguar. His callsign.
Eun Alba’s friend loomed protectively over him. Oliphant Praldar Singh, callsign Rajah, was an imposing figure, scarred and muscled like a huge tiger, the tattoo of his Sikh faith gleaming bright on the dusky skin of his forehead.
Eun Alba nodded curtly and willed his face back to the mask. He and Singh proceeded the last few meters and handed their cards to the herald. An archaic custom, but tradition often demanded a more low-tech touch. The man glanced at the cards and placed them on a crystal tray before ushering the Knights past him with a flourish.
They checked each other’s comportment quickly.
"Button your collar," Eun Alba told Singh as he straightened his own jacket. Both wore the platinum and sable of the Terran Defense Force elite Imperial Knights, resplendent with dress swords and emerald jewelthread sashes. Large brass shoulderpieces echoed the look of ancient samurai.
"Oh, Gods, Col, no one’ll see it under the beard."
"They will, and you know it. Button it until after you’ve presented yourself to the Emperor, at least."
Singh made a great show of struggling to button the high green collar while the herald waited with a pained expression on his thin face. Singh finished and made his eyes bulge comically. Eun Alba smiled in spite of himself.
The herald posed them quickly and cleared his throat before calling out, "Colossa Eun Alba and Oliphant Praldar Singh, Knights-Captain of His Imperial Majesty’s Order of the Knights of the Rising Earth!"
The herald’s voice keyed hidden amplifiers and echoed over the Jubilee gathering, accompanied by a large holovid of the two Knights standing at the head of the stair for the traditional five second count. Some of the glittering crowd paused to taste the names and examine the holo, to decide, Eun Alba observed cynically, whether anyone important had arrived. Most of the faces turned away, though a curious few did continue to watch, curious as to whether he and the Hangman would clash, as they had occasionally during the nearly thirty years of their feud. There would be more than enough witnesses.
Eun Alba hoped the Hangman was watching, too. His hand knotted on his sword hilt. The Hangman would pay for shaming Elena.
Had it only been an hour since she died? Ah, God, it was a wonder the world went on! A raw hole yawned in Eun Alba’s existence, a hollowness that ached to be filled. And all he had now was fury. White-hot, like plasma in his chest.
"Jaguar," Singh murmured. "Time to go down."
"Of course. Thank you."
Singh raised an eyebrow, clearly wondering if Eun Alba was up to this. Eun Alba had insisted. Family honor had to be protected decisively, before the rumors could begin to spread. He would be strong enough, for Elena’s sake.
Eun Alba strode down the stairs with the arrogant confidence expected of an Imperial Knight, one hand at his side, the other resting comfortably on the hilt of his saber. Beside him, Singh mumbled complaints at the tight collars of their uniforms. The floor of the Grand Ballroom was a black mirror stretching away on all sides beneath huge columns of white marble. The Emperor’s guests sparkled on that mirror, mingling lazily beneath emerald banners adorned with the Imperial Angel of Earth. Lamps seemed to float above the throng. Eun Alba descended into a murmur of conversation laced with gentle music. At the bottom of the stair, he accepted a flute of champagne from a servant’s tray. Singh, he noted automatically, took a brandy.
Singh leaned against a pillar and pointed. "By God, Col, did you ever see anything so damned silly?"
A pair of ornate, gold plated Gorgon-class Hercs towered over the multitude. The one on the left carried the Aztec solar calendar etched on its upper torso; the one on the right bore the leering face of some ancient god. The titanic machines gleamed under the glowlamps, a gilded display of Imperial power. Despite the Imperial streamers cascading over the barrels, the twin Techau-Sauvage plasma cannons each Herc carried were no fripperies; they could blow away anything short of an Apocalypse in a single blast.
Eun Alba grunted noncommittally. He didn’t like Gorgons, despite their awesome firepower; they handled too sluggishly for his taste.
"Bloody ridiculous," Singh added. He tossed his brandy down with a gulp and called a servant over for fresh drinks. Eun Alba didn’t even remember tasting his, much less finishing it. He reminded himself to be careful.
Once they both held full glasses again, Singh took Eun Alba’s arm in his own and led the way deeper into the Jubilee celebrants. A woman in a dress of liquid silver laughed gaily and extended a shapely arm toward them as they passed a flock of courtiers sharing a horseshoe-shaped couch. Eun Alba smiled and nodded automatically, but didn’t stop. Flirting among the court normally offered a pleasant distraction, but not tonight. Not with the rage and ache inside him. He sipped from his glass. The brandy burned his tongue pleasantly, and his mind drifted back to happier times, horseback rides through the orchards of the estate in Italy, laughter shared with Elena.
Yet Elena’s dead, the ache reminded him. Dead and gone.
Eun Alba scanned the crowd, anger and hurt sharpening his senses. Some Knights were easily visible: Hellhound, Throwback, Mako, Pirouette, Deathwish, Flayboy — he knew them all, but the Hangman was nowhere in sight.
He almost slopped brandy on his boots as Singh elbowed his arm. "For God’s sake, Raj —"
"Hsst! The Emperor!"
Eun Alba forgot the brandy and composed himself. The Emperor approached at the head of an entourage, all resplendent in dress finery. His Imperial Majesty appeared as a hologram clad in the golden robes of a Chinese Mandarin. The garb shimmered and flowed with the motion of coiling dragons. The Emperor glanced over from his conversation with a SpaceFleet Admiral and nodded. His image and movement were high resolution, very lifelike, Eun Alba noted, and as always, somewhat disconcerting. One never knew where the Emperor’s viewpoint was located. The entire ballroom contained sensor links to relay information back to its Master. He certainly wasn’t looking at his guests through those penetrating, light-woven eyes.
On the other hand, His Majesty’s hologram face looked less ravaged than his real one, a small vanity Eun Alba was glad of. Just seeing the Emperor’s ancient husk with its army of life support machinery was painful. When Eun Alba had attended the Emperor in person a few months ago, His Imperial Majesty had been confined to a wombcouch with an army of tubes and medical devices sprouting from his body. The Emperor was immortal, as everyone knew, but his body wasn’t immune to the weight of age. No one knew how long he would last, even with the finest medical technology.
The Knights clicked their heels and bowed deeply. The Emperor acknowledged them with a brief smile and a nod before returning his attention to the Admiral. Eun Alba saw no sign of the Imperial Escort, but the Emperor’s elite bodyguards undoubtedly waited nearby. As a matter of face, even His Imperial Majesty’s hologram would not be left unattended.
A hush greeted the Emperor as he passed into the crowd like a ship sailing through suddenly calm waters. People on all sides bowed and curtsied, hushed by the Imperial presence. Eun Alba felt dwarfed by the frail old man and all he stood for: The Great Human Empire, the pinnacle of human achievement. The guardian of Mother Earth, His Imperial Majesty was the Empire. And against Prometheus and the Cybrid menace, he was the only hope.
Prometheus. The name held a death-taint for Eun Alba as it did for all sane humans, a bitter fear worse than Hitler, Pol Pot, or Zenchenko. The Cybrids were like a plague of scorpions waiting to fall out of the night, stinging and clacking. Eun Alba’s grandfather had fought in The Fire under Sainted Gierling, whose memoirs were required reading in the Eun Alba family. There would be no peace while Cybrids still existed. And no quarter would be given when they came again.
"Razorfire! O’ jewel of the Knights, your presence moves me to song!" Singh had already finished his second brandy and replaced it with another drink that smelled of peaches.
"For Hunter’s sake, slow down." Eun Alba told him quietly.
"Jaguar, you worry too much! It’d be a sin to let all this brandy go to waste, eh? Ruby, you’re as beautiful as ever! It’s a wonder the sun doesn’t set and let you shine in its place!"
"Thank you, Singh — but spare us the songs tonight, please." She smiled and clasped Singh’s arm. "What kept you?"
Ruby Hokanson-Li had received the nom de guerre "Razorfire" for her deadly accuracy with Herc weaponry. She was also strikingly beautiful, which never hurt in building a reputation. Hokanson-Li wore the same uniform as Eun Alba and Singh, and her family crest was a lotus flanked by two red dragons.
Eun Alba clasped her arm in greeting and forced a smile. His face felt wooden. "An emergency, you might say."
Hokanson-Li cocked her head slightly, inviting further elaboration. Eun Alba ignored it. "I’m looking for the Hangman. Is he here?"
"Of course," she said, eyes narrowing. The feud with the Thau-Yuros was well-known. "Is there trouble?"
"Yes," Singh rumbled. "Much." He set his glass carefully on the edge of a nearby fountain and moved to Eun Alba’s side.
"Jaguar, Rajah, you must’ve found a rebel nest or something, to be so untidily late!" Titus Thau-Yuros was lean and elegant, with a high forehead and gaunt features. A silk patch covered his missing left eye, an old injury from Eun Alba from their first duel years ago. His callsign came from his preferred method of dealing with enemies of the Empire. Yet now he strolled up full of bonhomie.
"I had untidy business." Eun Alba handed his glass to Singh. "There are those who don’t care about honor, who repeat slanderous rumors. Lies, even. I’m sure you’re familiar with that kind of thing, Titus."
The Hangman’s eye glittered. "No more than anyone in the court, Colossa."
Singh swore softly and emptied Eun Alba’s drink at a swallow.
"This is Jubilee, Jaguar...," Hokanson-Li warned.
"Even Titus understands slander," Eun Alba replied blandly. The smile froze on Thau-Yuros’s face.
Hokanson-Li blinked. "Gentlemen, there are better things to discuss!"
"Certainly," Thau-Yuros agreed. "Such as your charming sister. How is she, Colossa?"
Eun Alba stiffened. The desire to kill was very strong now, a metallic taste in the mouth. He itched to take Thau-Yuros by the throat and tear the life out of him.
"Dead." His hand knotted into a fist. "Murdered by lies."
"You aren’t calling me a liar, are you, Colossa?" Thau-Yuros asked coolly.
"You accused Elena of being a traitor to His Imperial Majesty. She couldn’t live with that. Thus, you caused her death and blackened my family name. I demand satisfaction."
Thau-Yuros sniffed. "Elena was with Harabec Weathers — our rebel traitor — for a long time, old boy. They were lovers, she and the Phoenix."
Singh sighed and placed Eun Alba’s glass on the fountain by his own. "That’s not proof!" he rumbled. "Harabec’s been gone for nine years!"
Eun Alba nodded. "Singh’s right. That’s no proof."
"Ah, but what about the secret meetings with Harabec last year?"
Hokanson-Li looked shocked. Singh eyed his boots morosely.
"That’s still not proof, Titus," Eun Alba said slowly. "The meetings weren’t secret, just discreet. They’d been seeing each other occasionally over the years. Our family knew, and so did the Weathers. Your sources didn’t have to work hard. Elena wasn’t much for secrets. And no one knew about Harabec — including Imperial Intelligence."
Thau-Yuros returned a thin smile. "Excellent, Colossa, but flawed. After all, why kill herself, old boy? Unless she couldn’t live with the shame of being a traitor."
"Perhaps you’re right," Eun Alba replied coldly. "The mere accusation killed her. The lies."
Hokanson-Li put her hand on his arm. "Col, this isn’t the place for this. It’s Jubilee."
Eun Alba remembered Elena’s broken body, her blood splattered on the garden path, his mother’s stunned tears. "It’s as good a place as any." He looked at the courtiers gathered around them. "You heard him. This liar’s baseless accusation killed my sister!" He directed his gaze back to Thau-Yuros, anger worming into his words. "Well, Titus? What’s your pleasure? Blade or pistol?"
"Here. Now. Swords. I shan’t wait a moment longer, Jaguar. Your sister whored for the rebellion —!"
His control evaporated then, and Eun Alba lunged forward, but Singh grabbed him and held him in a grip of stone. Passion choked him. Honor was everything. Losing it was tantamount to losing one’s soul.
"The Code, Jaguar! Stick to the bloody Code!" Singh hissed in his ear. The Imperial Code Duello set forth the etiquette and rules for settling matters of honor with fist, blade, or pistol. Properly followed, the Code made violence and the occasional killing an acceptable part of aristocratic society.
Eun Alba stopped struggling. "Yeah, OK! Here. Now. By the book." Singh released him and he drew a deep, shuddering breath. The crowd pulled back, forming a clear space beneath one of the marble ribs.
"Titus Thau-Yuros slandered my sister and my name. I formally challenge him to defend his honor," Eun Alba managed at last.
"We’ll keep our jackets on," he told Singh. "I don’t want to wait." He drew his blade and made a few relaxed cuts to limber up. It was a heavy cavalry saber of duracore parasteel, and could score ceracrete without losing its edge. The Hangman carried a longer, straighter sword with a basket hilt. He had an advantage in reach, but Eun Alba normally kept the edge in speed.
Everything narrowed to himself, Thau-Yuros, and the electric fury that raced through him. Singh was trying to tell him something, but Eun Alba waved him off. Thau-Yuros saluted. Eun Alba returned a cursory salute, impatient to begin.
A slash at the Hangman’s wrist started the battle.
The Hangman parried and counterattacked. Eun Alba twisted away and snapped out a hard cut that grazed the Hangman’s shoulderpiece before the other got his sword up in time to avoid being split to the breastbone.
Thau-Yuros stepped back with a bland expression and feinted before stabbing low. Eun Alba parried and riposted with a fierce blow to the head. The Hangman’s blade blocked his attack, and for a moment, the two men strained against one another.
"HOLD!" The command exploded around them. The Emperor’s image blazed up before them as Knights and Terran Defense Force officers pushed through the circle. Among them was a stunning woman in form-fitting ceremonial armor, holding a plasma glaive with cool, graceful competence. Imperial Escort, Eun Alba realized. One of the Knights strode past her: Caanon Weathers, Grand Master of the Imperial Knights.
Eun Alba glanced at Thau-Yuros, who offered him a mock salute. Eun Alba cursed silently. Another time. He sheathed his blade, and the Hangman did likewise.
"What is the meaning of this?" Weathers demanded icily. Hokanson-Li and Singh knelt before the Emperor. Eun Alba couldn’t read any expression on the hologram.
"Your Majesty. Milord Grand Master." Eun Alba bowed deeply. "A thousand pardons. We are resolving a matter of honor."
"Indeed," Weathers responded. "A matter important enough to warrant a brawl in the heart of the Jubilee? There are proper places and times. You ignored protocol — as did your companions." He shot a cold glance at Hokanson-Li and Singh.
"Grand Master," the Emperor cut in gently. "Discipline them as you think best, but leave them fit for battle. Remember, we stand on the eve of war."
"War, Your Majesty?" Eun Alba straightened. Hokanson-Li rose, her fists clenched at her side. Singh left off admiring the Escort and stood to listen. Thau-Yuros simply smiled.
A trace of bitterness bled into the dry voice. "Yes. The colonies are in rebellion. Grand Master Weathers asked to hunt down his brother Harabec, the traitor general. It’s time to crush this serpent and bring the colonies to heel. Your request is granted, Grand Master." A ghostly smile flitted across His Imperial Majesty’s face. "And take these firebrands with you!"
Anticipation rushed through Eun Alba, tangling with the grief and fury, filling him with renewed purpose. The other matter of honor lay on Mars, with the traitor. Harabec must also answer for Elena’s death. And the Hangman would be there too. Very well. One way or the other, Mars would be the crucible of redemption.
On your name, I swear it, Elena. You will be avenged.