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This story is No. 7 in the series "A Different Future". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: On Tallura, Dawn and the others may be safely out of Glory’s reach, but their adventures are only just beginning. And safety is always a relative condition - sequel to "Fate's Little Plaything Volume One".

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Stargate > GeneralCordyfanFR1323281,0563128461,05914 Mar 116 Sep 14No

Careless Talk

Summary: On Tallura, Dawn and the others may be safely out of Glory’s reach, but their adventures are only just beginning. And safety is always a relative condition.
Pairings: None.
Disclaimer: I don’t own Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stargate SG-1, or Stargate Atlantis.
Notes: Continued from Fate’s Little Plaything Vol.1 (it will only make sense if you’ve read that story).

 

Classified Research Area, Yaherin Var University Museum, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 20th January 2001 (Earth Date)

“Latin?” one of Sulla’s researchers asked in puzzlement, having largely absented himself from Joyce’s Terran history projects.

“The language of the Roman Empire, one of the older Terran civilizations most heavily influenced by those Alterans who opted to remain on Earth,” Sulla explained, looking to his newest assistant for a more detailed explanation.

“It’s a dead language back home, no longer used on a day-to-day basis, except by classical scholars in their studies, some branches of the natural sciences – for naming species and that sort of thing – and by one of our major religious groups.  A lot of Alteran and Tallurans words sound the same, with similar meanings.  Very different alphabet, though,” Joyce responded.

She’d taken a class in advanced Latin when studying classical civilizations in college, but as a child the convent school she attended had emphasised the language to an unusual extent.  In later school years, Joyce had opted to continue with the subject, largely because she liked the teacher.  As a result, much of what she’d learned remained fixed in her mind.  Of course, having spent so much time in school learning Latin, Joyce reminded herself that her knowledge of more modern languages was seriously wanting.  Even Buffy spoke better French and Spanish than she did, though her eldest daughter’s not inconsiderable academic talents lay in other directions.

“I presume that the Roman Empire was not a space-faring one?” one of the more naive researchers asked.

Joyce snorted. “Uh, hardly...  We’re talking animal-drawn transport here!  Though quite sophisticated road-making skills, engineering – especially architecture – systems of law, and public hygiene for the time.”

“So how did a message, written in Latin, come to be on a planet in the Vedda Galaxy?” another researcher asked in bewilderment.

Sulla waved a dismissive hand. “That is hardly important at this stage.  Can you tell us what the message says, Joyce?”

“My Latin’s slightly rusty – I haven’t used it in a long while – but I can read or at least summarise most of this,” she told the Academist, hoping the fruits of all those long-past hours of study were still tucked away in her head somewhere.

“Hmmm...  It’s not particularly cryptic or anything, so I suppose that’s something,” Joyce rubbed her brow.

“ “Let him who seeks all the knowledge of the Ancients start his journey here.  But know that the journey only begins in this place.  Seek out the” – uh – that’ll be “map of the stars”... Mmmmm...  “In the house of the heavens”.”

“ “All the knowledge of the Ancients” could mean anything,” Sulla muttered. “But it sounds similar to our sole purpose for being here.  “House of the heavens” could be either a temple or an astronomical observatory, I would surmise.  Presumably within the city, or at least close by.”

“The base of the canyon would be a poor location for an observatory.  We have not yet had a chance to explore most of the city, let alone the rest of the planet,” one of the researchers piped up.

“Perhaps the other part gives us further clues,” Sulla offered hopefully.

Joyce squinted at the image of the second panel, which was slightly more worn than the first, and shook her head.

“Reads more like a warning...  “Let the seeker know that even the first step is a dangerous one.  Those who came before left a...”– I think that reads “dark legacy, unchained from the pit, with a burning desire for vengeance.”  I don’t much like the sound of that... “Woe to him that wake it from its sleep...”  Melodramatic much?” Joyce finished, unconsciously channelling her older daughters.

Sulla wasn’t sure he liked the sound of that, either, even if the scientific team and their Imperial Guard escort hadn’t detected even the slightest sign of life.

He cleared his throat. “We at least have an objective, if also this warning...”

“Why use an alien language?” one of the researchers asked.

“I would suggest that there must have been some contact with those Alterans remaining on Terra – and for centuries longer than we thought,” the Academist proposed. “As for reasons to use Latin?  A message written in an alien language, from a distant galaxy, which uses a completely unknown alphabet?  It might have served whoever carved that pillar as a quick and effective form of code.”

Sulla looked uncomfortable. “This mention of a “dark legacy, unchained from the pit” worries me, however.”

“It sounds a little – make that a lot - too much like some of the things my daughter deals with at home...” Joyce ventured grimly, after a moment’s consideration.

She had been considering if it might be worth briefly joining the expedition, in case they found more Latin carvings – and out of sheer curiosity – but now that seemed like a very bad idea.  The language used hinted that, back home, this might have been a job for a different member of the Summers family.

“Exactly,” the Academist confirmed unhappily, reaching for a communications device, and summoning Aquiliani from the reading rooms.

Joyce’s most regular bodyguard, a scholar and former archivist in her own right, was making the most of this assignment.  With lengthy periods of waiting around the university, and her Terran charge safe in a high-security area, the newly-promoted Centurion-Quintus was taking the opportunity to reacquaint and update herself with some former favourite areas of study.

The Centurion arrived at top speed, wondering what was so urgent that she’d been summoned.  Sulla had sounded unusually serious, which didn’t bode well.  Somewhat surprisingly to Aquiliani, she was immediately handed a data pad, stating that she was about to be informed of a highly sensitive project, and detailing the penalties for breach of secrecy.  Shrugging, she accepted its terms – such things weren’t exactly unusual for the Imperial Guard, after all – and sat back to hear with a worried-looking Academist had to say.

Fifteen minutes later, she looked as grave as the others.  The warning might no longer be relevant, if it ever had been, but they couldn’t take that chance.  Equally, the expedition might also be on the brink of a priceless discovery, so simply withdrawing might not be an option, either.

“As an Imperial Guard officer, do you think we might be justified in sending The Spear to investigate?” Sulla asked.

Aquiliani had served in the Special Operations Division, but never with The Spear.  The latter was the small, specially-trained force used to deal with supernatural problems, on the rare occasions those actually arose in the Vedda Galaxy.  However, such circumstances were so uncommon, that it was years since the unit had actually faced a demon.  In consequence, most of their training was based on operational records, with virtually no experience in most cases.  Regarded as a somewhat eccentric unit within the Imperial Guard, The Spear were nevertheless the Empire’s first line of defence against the supernatural.

“It is very vague...” Aquiliani allowed. “But with no life signs?  Any threat that still exists on that planet – if it is still there – must be supernatural in origin.  In any case, a trip through the Astria Porta will give them a chance to earn their wages for once...”

Perhaps she’d over-reacted in her concern.  They were, after all, simply reacting to a carved pillar which had been there for several millennia.  The Imperial Guard suspected this would probably be another false alarm for the monster hunters.

“What about Diana?  You might want to talk to her first.  This could be Slayer territory, after all,” Joyce pointed out.

“Diana Prince is here for a specific mission – and has already performed above and beyond that mission in saving Her Excellency’s life.  If The Spear require specialist support, I am sure they will ask,” Aquiliani suggested.

Joyce wasn’t convinced, but it wasn’t her place to push it, either.  Hopefully, the Talluran Imperial Guard specialists weren’t about to bite off more than they could chew.  Which, she chided herself, was a very bad metaphor if they were dealing with a demon.

 

The Vertain Estate, Outside Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 20th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Even the following day, Licinia Vertain was still delighted at having picked up such a choice morsel.  This was far beyond gossip, it was a research project, she reminded herself yet again.  Careful and deliberately vague questioning of her father over the dinner table had revealed nothing, or certainly nothing the Proconsul for War was willing to share.  Before passing the titbit along, she’d taken time to analyse and reinforce what she knew, of course.  Others might call it embellishment, but Vertain simply described it as filling in the gaps, using logic.

Firstly, the young Terran had arrived with a personal bodyguard detachment, crack troops who worked alongside the Empress’ own Imperial Guard.  Only someone of importance had that level of protection, especially as her personal physician was also on Tallura Prime. 

Secondly, if the Terrans were planning to intervene, it logically meant that even the force they could deploy to the Vedda Galaxy – while keeping a substantial element in their home region of space – was probably more powerful than the largest powers facing the Tallurans.  Which meant the fleet they could send might be able to match either the Khkerrikk Star Empire or the Jarrasii Empire.  Or more likely, both of them.

The pieces always fit together, Vertain told herself, if you just knew how to look at them.  That was why she’d be this year’s top student in Political Studies.

Now it was just a matter of transmitting her thoughts to some carefully selected friends, preferably those with parents in positions who might know something, and instructions to keep their ears open and mouths shut for the moment.  Vertain wanted a detailed picture to present to her father.  Anything less wasn’t advisable, since the last time her parents caught her spreading unfounded rumours, she’d needed pillows until the following day.  They couldn’t call this gossip, though.  It was simply a demonstration of the sort of analytical powers she’d need for a position in the Directorate of Alien Affairs.  Besides it was worth the risk, in any case, given that the Talluran Empire and the Second Evolution, in the shape of the Terrans, didn’t reunite every day. 

Vertain checked over her conclusions once more, then tapped her Comm-Pad to draw up an address list and carefully selected who should – and definitely should not – share in her discovery at this point.  Seconds later, her close-knit circle of friends were marvelling over the latest secret. 

 

Lake Eloria, Outside Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 20th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Lake Eloria was a favourite spot for Talluran teenagers to engage in what their Terran counterparts would have called “parking”.  The woods around the lake had numerous secluded areas just large enough for a grounded Gravity Car, while the thick mossy floor offered a comfortable alternative.

“If your father discovers that you have borrowed his Gravity Car again, it will be a long time before we are permitted to see each other again...” Melila Tsakonias told her boyfriend.

All at once, her Comm-Pad chirped, signalling the arrival of another data packet.  She quickly checked it.  Licinia Vertain could wait, she decided, having far more important things on her mind right now.  Though if her father could see what was probably on her boyfriend’s mind right now, he’d most likely reach for a sword, she thought in amusement.

“My father will never know...  Unless you were to tell him...” Oppiar Ancunius smirked, moving a hand up her leg.

He was pleased to see that she didn’t even pretend to resist.

“If I told him, I would be locked in my room for the next ten years.  He does not approve of you already...” Tsakonias grinned, moving in for a lip-lock.

“I can think of a few other things he would not approve of!” Ancunius assured her, just before the two giggling teens began to explore each others’ tonsils.

 

Jugrub knew he was taking a risk, but the carnivorous reptilian sorely needed something fresh and newly killed, else his constitution was going to suffer.  It had been weeks since he’d tasted truly fresh meat, but out here, there were always unsuspecting young Tallurans.

He moved stealthily towards an open-topped Gravity Car, where the two occupants were too intent on each other to notice his approach.  Given a few more minutes, they’d probably start ripping the clothes off each other, he guessed with a smirk.  Well, these were two young mammals who were never going to know each other any better than they did now.

 

With a start, Tsakonias suddenly disengaged from her boyfriend’s lips. “I thought I heard something...”

“You are just imagining things,” Ancunius assured her, slightly impatiently.

“Actually, your friend is quite correct,” Jugrub told him amiably.

His paralytic venom struck both Tallurans in the face, a palm-sized stun pistol silently reducing the teenagers to unconsciousness before they could even scream.  It had been considerably easier than the reptilian had thought, even though he only really needed one fresh meal.  Jugrub was already licking his lips in expectation.

 

Jugrub’s Hideout, New City, Yaherin Var Imperial City – 20th January 2001 (Earth Date)

The pirate cursed his luck, as he checked the two Tallurans’ identities.  The male was a nobody, but the girl might be a problem.  Of all the victims to choose, it had to be a daughter of the Chief Secretary to the Proconsul for the Interior who was now bleeding her life away in the disused warehouse.  Jugrub was quite confident of covering his tracks, but the disappearance of such a public figure’s offspring would, nevertheless, attract unwelcome attention.  He had to remind himself that murders and disappearances were rare within the Talluran Empire, so any such incidents would cause widespread public concern, but it also meant that the authorities were less accomplished in solving such crimes as they might otherwise be.

He idly wondered if there might be anything of interest on the girl’s Comm-Pad, given her father’s position.  It was unlikely that the Proconsul would share any sensitive information with his child, of course, but perhaps there might be something worth selling to an appropriate audience.  He’d check that possibility while he waited for her to bleed out properly, otherwise it made the meat overly tough.

The Talluran had a basic encryption set up on her Comm-Pad, but nothing he couldn’t easily break with a minimum of effort.  Jugrub expected it to be full of idle gossip between her and her friends, perhaps puerile images of them enjoying themselves, and the raucous noise they called music on this planet.  Still, there might just be something worth keeping, the reptilian considered hopefully, as he tried to ignore his rumbling stomach.

The very first data packet he opened almost made him choke.  The pirate read and re-read it several times, just to make sure he wasn’t mistaken.  Given who he’d taken the Comm-Pad from – and after running a quick ID search, who’d sent the message – Jugrub was quite sure this would be of enormous value to someone.  It was also, he had to admit, potentially of immense concern to the security of the Ch’Hanis Freehold.  And despite having been betrayed by the Embassy authorities, he was still a Ch’Hanis to the core.

 

Ch’Hanis Diplomatic Residences, New City, Yaherin Var Imperial City – 20th January 2001 (Earth Date)

The last thing Buldrog expected was a visitor at this hour.  The Ch’Hanis intelligence officer had just returned to his apartment after another lengthy day at the embassy.  Given that very few Tallurans ever wanted to visit the reptilians’ homeworld, he was able to spend only a small fraction of the day on his official job, issuing travel authorisation documents.  The rest of the time, he was free to spy on the Tallurans, and to count the time left on this assignment.  Being surrounded by mammals made his scales crawl and the sooner he was home, the happier he’d be.

The intelligence officer was just opening the kitchen door, when a massive clawed hand caught him around the throat, and a Ch’Hanis-issue gauss pistol was placed against his temple.

“Give me one good reason why I should let you live,” Jugrub growled.

With an effort, Buldrog kept his voice level. “I would assume that you want something from me, else I would already be dead.”

“After informing on me to the Talluran Security Bureau, what did you expect?  Fortunately for you, I am still loyal to our people as a whole,” his fellow alien retorted.

“I have intelligence which may be of critical importance to the Freehold,” he continued.

“And what sources might you have, as a renegade and a pirate, wanted by your own people and the Tallurans?” Buldrog didn’t like the implication that his own team might have missed something important.

There had been little of note recently, with a treaty only recently signed between the Talluran Empire and Ch’Hanis Freehold.  He’d been expressly ordered not to do anything to disrupt the illusion of an improving relationship for the moment, especially given the currently strong position held by the Tallurans.  That, in turn, meant that certain intelligence-gathering activities had to be curtailed or even temporarily halted.  As a result, probably the only intel of note passing his desk recently had been the freely available information that the Empress was now responsible for raising the next-in-line to the throne.  Aside from indicating that Drayana was reinforcing an already-strong political base at home, such things told him nothing.

“You might be surprised what might be turned up, by sheer serendipity...” Jugrub passed the intelligence officer the Comm-Pad taken from his victim.

“You took this from the child of a senior Proconsular official?” Buldrog’s tone rose several octaves, after Jugrub had explained the pad’s provenance. “You do know that the authorities are already turning the city upside down, looking for them?”

“They will not find the bodies,” the pirate responded with an unpleasant chuckle. “But the information may be invaluable...”

Buldrog read for a few minutes. “That is all?  A mere child’s gossip?”

“Sent to this one by the child of the Proconsul for War, so it may be more,” Jugrub cautioned. “The official story about the Terrans – the supernatural and so forth – is somewhat vague, or certainly that which has been shared with Ilarius.  This, however, makes much more sense.”

Even their arrival aboard an Asgard ship supported the idea, when he thought about it.  Using the Asgard rather than one of their own ships had delayed anyone finding out about the Terrans up until now.  Furthermore, from an Asgard perspective – at least using Jugrub’s standpoint – there was no reason to bring a group of Terrans to another galaxy, simply as a refuge from some supernatural threat.  More likely, the grey aliens were seeking a way to offset their own defence commitments to the Tallurans.  And it would require a galactic superpower to take their place.

“And what are you suggesting I should do about it?” the intelligence officer knew this was far too thin to take to his superiors.

Unfortunately, his sources were extremely limited right now, and this would be difficult to confirm or disprove.  Buldrog also had to admit that separating Talluran gossip and rumour from indisputable fact was sometimes a difficult task.  There was simply nothing similar in Ch’Hanis society, since loose tongues tended to be ripped out, sometimes quite literally.  To his culturally-alien eye, however, this tract seemed all too well-written and plausible to be merely a child’s prattle.

Jugrub’s teeth showed. “For now?  Nothing, apart from keeping your aural apertures open.  Let me deal with the problem.”

“If I let you “deal with the problem” in your customary manner, Jugrub?  And this turns out to be true?  The consequences could be catastrophic.  If the Terrans are indeed so powerful...” Buldrog was nervous, in spite of his doubts about the accuracy of this information.

Confirmation either way might be critical to the survival of the Freehold.  If the price of keeping a Terran armada from their space meant making more concessions on the diplomatic front, then so be it.  Unfortunately, there were also fanatics back home, who would insist that a pre-emptive strike on the Tallurans was the only solution.  That, however, would be fatal.  Not only would the Empire certainly retaliate in kind, but their new friends might also take extreme offence, even if a treaty hadn’t been finalised.

“What if I could make it look as though a Talluran was responsible?” Jugrub licked his lips. “It might mean an end to this new alliance.  At best, the Terran battle-fleet could appear in orbit and blast them all to atoms.”

Buldrog paused. “But then they might not stop with the Tallurans...  Besides, you could be completely wrong.”

“Then we simply have a dead Terran child and a distraught Empress, who has become very fond of her,” the pirate replied.

“You would have to ensure that the trail did not lead back to our people, even if this Terran is not the representative of a powerful Empire.  The Tallurans would most likely respond harshly to even the slightest hint of our involvement, in such a case,” Buldrog warned him.

He was beginning to see possibilities of his own for mischief, without having to do anything, except whisper a few words in the right ears.  There had been no hint of this from those operatives with links to the N’Gluk Alliance or Triannite Kingdom, the Tallurans’ longest established allies.  How would these powers react if their ally was forming a new alliance, with an inter-galactic superpower, without informing them?  Even if this proved to be a false rumour, Buldrog decided that he could still cause some friction between the Talluran Empire and its friends. 

The key would be to keep it vague, not even mentioning the Terrans by name, and simply relying on the diplomatic rumour mill and the natural paranoia of the various Vedda Galaxy species.

“Get me what I need, and the Tallurans will be too busy looking for assassins amongst their own people,” Jugrub promised.

 

Joyce’s Apartments, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 22nd January 2001 (Earth Date)

“I am not wearing that fricking thing!” Faith declared roundly, folding her arms and metaphorically digging her heels in.

“I’d look like Cinderella and turn into a pumpkin!” she added, rolling her eyes.

The Imperial Dressmaker was beginning to think that fitting out the youngest Terran had been an easy job, compared to this one.

“You only have to wear it once, Diana,” Lam pointed out reasonably, having already been measured for the dress of her dreams.

“I’ve done the dress thing twice in my life.  And that was with General Hammond – but he’s a good guy and it was just the two of us.  Not with some bunch of brown-nosed ass-licking Imperial hangers-on!” the Slayer replied stubbornly.

Mayor Wilkins had also liked to see her in a dress on occasion, the memory of that only serving to make her ever-more pro-jeans for every possible occurrence.

Lam shrugged, as though nonchalantly. “Have it your way...  I’m sure Drayana won’t be offended – not to say upset – that the woman she calls her blood sister doesn’t want to inconvenience herself for one night.”

Faith’s eyes narrowed.  It was easy to forget that the psychiatrist was very skilled in pressing just about anyone’s buttons, if she wanted to make a point.  And that particular point had struck home, directly on target.  The Slayer was very fond of the Empress, the slightly younger girl being the first person ever to call her family and actually mean it.

“Hey, I’ll wear the fricking thing...” she sighed. “Just don’t expect me to stop bitchin’ about it.  And you’re gonna have to help me choose something, ‘cause this totally ain’t my thing.”

“Understated, but elegant,” Joyce suggested, realising that Faith was not a frills and ruffles girl.

“Needs plenty of space for movement, in case I have to Slay something,” Faith added.

“You sound like Buffy,” Dawn sniggered. “She won’t go anywhere – even the Senior Prom at High School - without a heap of stakes and knives hidden everywhere. But it might help her mood if she pulled that one out of her...”

“Dawn!” Joyce growled.

Faith smirked her agreement with the younger Summers, but also nodded. “Yeah.  Well, B’s a smart girl - can't never have too many weapons.”

Lam raised her eyebrows. “Of course...  Because the Imperial gathering is sure to be invaded by hordes of vampires...”

“Don’t jinx it, doc,” Faith advised, waving a finger at her, as she reluctantly returned to a catalogue of styles.

“Answer the door, young lady,” Joyce told her giggling daughter, as someone knocked.

It was Diana’s maid, bearing a silver tray with three sealed envelopes, addressed to the three Terran women.

Joyce curiously opened hers. “What do we have here?  Oh...”

She extracted an invitation card, bearing the Imperial seal. “ “Lieutenant-Colonel Wade Logan would be honoured if Ms Joyce Summers would accompany him to the Imperial gathering...””

“I got one from Bill Sato,” Faith added in surprise – now she’d definitely have to wear something disgustingly feminine.

“Guess who I got one from?  Here’s a clue... Not SG-15...” Lam grinned with glee.

Faith and Joyce both shrugged.

“Ilarius?” the Slayer suggested mischievously.

“Laugh all you like.  The Imperial Physician asked me,” Lam replied triumphantly, with an expectant grin.

The other two women’s jaws dropped.  Healer Gaius Valarien was what Buffy and Cordelia would have described as a hunk of salty goodness and all three Terrans had been smitten from the moment they first cast eyes on the Talluran physician.

“He’ll just want to talk medical stuff,” Faith responded dismissively, Joyce nodding her agreement.

“Green-eyed monster, ladies?” Lam smiled, fighting back an urge to skip up and down like an excited schoolgirl.

“Don’t I get a guy to invite me?” Dawn asked plaintively.

“No!” the reply was simultaneous from every other woman in the room, even the Imperial Dressmaker, who had a daughter around Dawn’s age.

 

Drayana’s Chambers, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 22nd January 2001 (Earth Date)

The last person Drayana wanted to see in her chambers was Regent Fen Ilarius.  Aside from being weary after a hard day’s studies, then tackling a mound of paperwork, followed by arbitrating between two Proconsular departments in a budgetary squabble – which had given her the beginnings of a headache – she was increasingly tired of pretending to be civil around a man she detested.  And who also detested her, in equal measure.  It might be part of the job, but the hypocrisy was still hard to stomach at times.

She just wanted to return to her apartments, play with Sulvia, eat one of her mother’s excellent home-cooked meals, and spend some precious time with Dawn.  Surely it wasn’t too much to ask?

Unfortunately, duty was calling, with its most unpleasant voice.

“What can I help you with, Regent?” Drayana clasped her elegant hands together on her desk.

She pointedly didn’t ask the Regent to sit down and hoped he took note of her rudeness.

“I was wondering when the Imperial Advisory Council might meet with the Princess Imperial, Your Excellency,” Ilarius replied, ignoring the slight, at least visibly.

“You will all have an opportunity to meet her at the Inauguration Ceremony, the day after tomorrow, Regent,” the Empress replied innocently.

Drayana had a good idea what was coming next, but she’d already prepared a response.

The Regent shook his head. “I was meaning that the Council should meet with the Princess, in order to discuss her training and education, Excellency.”

If he succeeded in his ultimate aim of overthrowing Drayana, then there might not be any need for a sovereign at all.  On the other hand, it might be useful to keep a malleable figurehead on the throne.  If that were the case, however, Sulvia would require appropriate – if also very subtle – guidance even at this very early stage, so that she could be an appropriate puppet at a future date.

“That will not be necessary, Ilarius, nor is it appropriate.  The Imperial Advisory Council exists for one purpose only.  To advise a sovereign who has still to reach full adulthood in the eyes of Talluran law.  The Council’s remit does not extend to interfering in the education of the heir, especially where arrangements have already been made,” Drayana told him flatly.

“But you and your parents will surely need assistance,” Ilarius was still seething over the fact that the Imperial Tutor and the Empress’ Guardian had finally married and adopted her.

The Empress leaned forward slightly. “I already have assistance, Regent.  There are any number of Proconsuls – and a few individual members of the Council – plus some Academists and so forth, who have offered their services in helping to devise a suitable training and educational programme for Sulvia.  I have, of course, been only too glad to listen to their advice.”

“Which is more than you do with ours’...” Ilarius only realised that he’d actually said the words aloud when the last one left his lips.

It was, admittedly, a perfectly valid charge.  Drayana made very little use of the Imperial Advisory Council as a whole.  She trusted a few individuals and, indeed, regularly consulted with them,  but as a single body the Council was worse than redundant in her eyes.  Especially since Ilarius’ position as Regent allowed him to appoint half its members.  Fortunately, the Constitution only required her to be aware of their suggestions, not to use them when formulating policy.  Moreover, she only had to advise them of her actions at some point – after the fact was as permissible as before.  The Empress much preferred to deal directly with her government, in the shape of the Proconsuls and their underlings, than at second-hand via the Advisory Council.  Not that most of the latter were anywhere near as treacherous as Ilarius, but their advice often simply wasn’t up to the task.

“That is to say, I mean...” the Regent stammered.

“I understand completely, Regent,” the Empress declared coldly.

It was, she decided, time for an exchange of truths.

“But tell me this...  Why should I listen to the advice of a man who oversaw the most venal government in centuries of Talluran history?  You are perfectly aware of the number of corrupt Proconsuls and civil servants I was forced to dismiss on taking office – and any newly qualified prosecutor could have seen their guilt in two minutes.  You saw the same record as I, heard the same legal transcripts for those who were prosecuted, and the same confessions.  So either you were complicit – which the record has yet to prove...  Or you were so incompetent, that bribery, corruption and outright theft prospered under your rule.  Would you like to tell me which?” Drayana held her hands out to each side, waiting for an answer.

“Then, of course, there is the small matter of allowing relations with the neighbouring powers – hostile and friendly – to deteriorate significantly, while our economy stagnated, expansion of the Empire effectively ceased, and the Fleet was seriously run down...  But of course I should listen to your advice on how to govern the Empire!” the Empress continued sarcastically.

Ilarius’ mouth opened and shut, but no sound came out.  Of course, there was nothing he could say to refute any of the charges, nor to explain why she should care to listen to him now.  The Regent also knew what she thought of him, but up to this point, Drayana had never voiced it.  But right at this moment, more than ever before, Ilarius just wanted to grab her slim neck and squeeze.

“So perhaps the best way is merely to continue as before, Regent.  You and the Council continue to pretend to advise me, and I shall pretend to listen,” the Empress told him flatly.

The Constitution, Drayana mused, seriously need rewriting.  Ilarius was Regent for life, according him certain privileges, including membership of the Imperial Advisory Council and even a say in the latter’s composition.  He couldn’t resign the post, but only serious criminal misconduct – which he’d been wily enough to cover up so far – would result in his title being stripped.

It was an inherently flawed and potentially dangerous situation, the Empress thought.  In her case, a good working relationship with the main figures in government and the Consular Houses – regardless of their political leanings -backed up by widespread popular support, meant that the Imperial Advisory Council was irrelevant.  A weaker monarch, on the other hand, could be heavily influenced by such a clique.

Drayana turned to Vesarian, who always made a point of being the duty Imperial Guard behind the Empress’ chair when Ilarius was around.  It was simply his way of showing disapproval of the Regent.

“Centurion?  I believe we are finished here for now.  Would you care to show the Regent to the door?” Drayana said smoothly.

For just an instant, Ilarius’ had a look of murderous fury on his face.  It was enough to have Vesarian’s hand halfway to his sidearm and the Empress’ hand resting on her sword hilt.  In a flash, the usual expression of urbane insincerity had returned.

“As always, I am here only to serve Your Excellency,” the Regent assured her on the way out.

“And I am a motherfucking Ch’Hanis...” Drayana snorted derisively, as the door closed behind him.

Vesarian looked pained. “I wish you would not say such things, Your Excellency.  It angers your mother and means unpleasant consequences for you...”

The Empress growled and involuntarily snapped her delicately engraved pen in half. “I know, but there are times when I could explode around that excuse for a man...”

“I think he may have received that message quite clearly, Excellency,” the Imperial Guard replied quietly.

The young Empress winced, recalling her perhaps too blunt words of a few moments before.  Drayana prided herself on her diplomatic skills and the ability control any exchange, but she was still inexperienced and, she knew, sometimes prone to being a slave to her emotions.  This time, she might have made an already tricky relationship even more precarious. 

Drayana paused. “Did I say too much, Shar?”

The Empress only used his given name when they were alone, but she trusted the Centurion’s advice on some things more than the entire Imperial Advisory Council.

“In my opinion?  Perhaps a little strong, but no more than the truth,” Vesarian suggested. “He may keep out of your way for a while, though he will obviously retain his post.  Openly?  Ilarius will probably not act any differently.  But you have embarrassed him and behind closed doors, he may become a still more dangerous enemy.”

One of these days, the Regent would make an error, exposing his treasonous attitudes.  Vesarian was certain of that - and also determined he’d be there to gut the unpleasant little man with a well-placed sword stroke.

Drayana groaned and rubbed her aching temples, cursing her own temper once more. “Because I do not have enough enemies at present...”

 

Drayana’s Bedroom, the Imperial Apartments, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 22nd January 2001 (Earth Date)

Five personal message icons blinked on the Empress’ computer terminal when she arrived home, already tired, hungry and with a splitting headache.  She sighed and considered ignoring them.  It would, after all, be much more pleasant to spend a little time playing with Sulvia and chatting to Dawn.  Duty was duty, however, she reminded herself sternly, opening the message packets one at a time.

The first was a reminder that she had two diplomatic meetings the following day, one with the creepy, faceless Zaharte Ambassador, the other with her new allies, the Aqqabaz.  Another message was from Carolyn Lam, the psychiatrist suggesting that it might be time for another chat.  Drayana had every intention of accepting the offer, the Terran having been of immensely greater comfort lately than her own specialists.

Message number three was impatiently wiped in an instant.  She couldn’t believe that Septimus Antonian had the nerve to ask if his stipend could be extended for a few more months.  For a moment, Drayana considered an angry reply, but decided just to ignore the worthless former heir.  With any luck, she thought grimly, he’d be dead of alcohol poisoning or a particularly nasty sexually transmitted disease before long.  In any case, with his abdication of succession and formal repudiation of any responsibility for Sulvia, there was no reason to maintain any contact. 

The fourth message made the Empress cringe.  She’d definitely be making another appointment with Carolyn Lam.  The most recent intelligence on the Talluran strike against the Xicavvar had just arrived, including revised casualty lists.  The death toll from her so-called “measured punitive response” had just been updated, to 1.5 million at a minimum.  Moreover, with the total collapse of infrastructure on Xicammar, there was already considerable social strife, perhaps the beginnings of civil war, and worrying signs of a virulent plague.  Of course, the Xicavvar would not now be in a position to pose any threat to the Tallurans, perhaps for decades, but Drayana feared she’d also hardened their enmity beyond repair.  It was a harsh reminder that while military force was a frighteningly easy tool to use in her political toolkit, it also carried the highest costs.

On top of the previous two messages, the fifth brought a red haze to Drayana’s eyes.  It was just the final straw.  With a snarl, she suddenly swept a neat row of books from the bookshelf, kicked her bag across the room, and scattered the papers on her desk.

 

Sulvia’s Playroom, the Imperial Apartments, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 22nd January 2001 (Earth Date)

Dolls, at least in such numbers, were creepy.  Joyce shuddered involuntarily and tried to ignore the dozens of lifeless artificial eyes staring at her from the shelves and floor.  Unfortunately, Sulvia was clearly very fond of them and, having fallen heir to Drayana’s own childhood collection, the demonic-looking things were everywhere.  Joyce could definitely understand Buffy’s intense dislike of ventriloquists’ dummies.

For the moment, Sulvia had abandoned the dolls’ house – it seemed to be as much a Talluran tradition as a Terran one – and was busily building an immense, if precariously balanced, tower from a sophisticated construction set.  Dawn was on her knees beside the child, clearly enjoying herself, and also demonstrating her own poor grasp of basic architectural principles.  Not to mention elementary physics, since that tower was certain to collapse at any moment, Joyce predicted with a chuckle.

Her daughter had volunteered for the job of Sulvia’s chief entertainer this afternoon, as Drayana had been heavily engaged in matters of state.  Dawn didn’t seem to mind one bit, while the Princess Imperial clearly liked having her new “cousin” around.  Joyce was in two minds about that.  It would be hard enough for Dawn to be parted from Drayana and others when they eventually had to leave Tallura Prime.  She’d feel it herself, Joyce recognised with a pang.  An eight-year-old like Sulvia, however, might feel the loss of a new friend even more keenly, especially given her unhappy childhood up to now.

Livia’s head appeared in the doorway. “Dawn?  Would you tell Drayana to leave her work and join us for dinner?”

The Empress could hire the best kitchen staff in the whole Talluran Empire, if she was so inclined, but much preferred the homely fare produced by her mother and former guardian.  Joyce had to agree that Livia’s culinary skills were the equal of anything she’d tasted on this planet so far.

“Sure Aunt Livia...  Woops...” Dawn grinned, as the Leaning Tower of Tallura suddenly crashed to the floor.

“Are you going to build it again?” Joyce asked, as a seemingly unperturbed Sulvia immediately began to gather up the scattered pieces.

“No...  I think I will build an Imperial Guard Heavy Cruiser,” the Princess recalled the mighty warship which had brought her to Tallura Prime.

Livia and Joyce chuckled.  The youngster was certainly imaginative.  She was also clearly extremely contented amongst her new family and surroundings.

Dawn reappeared a few moments later, a distinctly worried expression on her face.

“Uh, Aunt Livia...?  Drayana won’t come out of her room...  It sounds as though she’s throwing stuff around and...” her voice trailed away, not wishing to get her friend into trouble, but also realising that something was wrong.

She definitely wasn’t, however, about to tell Livia that her daughter was cursing like a sailor, in a mixture of Talluran, English and a few other languages Dawn had never heard. 

Dawn liked her Aunt Livia, even if she was a scary woman.  Extremely tall – about six-foot-six – with silver-grey hair and unusually vivid blue eyes, she was almost old enough to be Drayana’s grandmother, albeit only appearing about half her real age, as was common amongst Tallurans.  The woman was also extremely smart, the Empress having assured her Terran friend that nothing ever escaped her mother.

“I think someone may be a little stressed today,” Livia nodded, deciding that she maybe better intervene.

“So the Empress trashes her room when she gets in a snit?” Dawn grinned at her mother. “Can I throw stuff around when I’m stressed out, too?”

Joyce folded her arms. “If you ever even think about trashing your room, young lady, you’ll find yourself spending a long time confined there...”

Her expression grew more serious. “And I wouldn’t describe it as a “snit”, Dawn.  Drayana has more personal responsibility than you can imagine, more than you will ever have to deal with.  Responsibility she can’t – and wouldn’t – dodge.  But she’s also only sixteen, so I’m really not surprised that she has to blow off steam occasionally.”

Joyce reminded herself that her eldest daughter’s responsibilities were equally tough, with the fate of the planet often hanging in the balance, and had been since she was a similar age to Drayana.  Back then, she hadn’t been the most supportive of mothers, even after discovering the truth.  She wasn’t sure if she could ever fully forgive herself.

“Kinda like Buffy, just different?” Dawn ventured – she’d had a lot of time to think about her sister lately.

“Exactly,” Joyce replied approvingly, glad her youngest daughter was finally beginning to see the Slayer’s role as something other than glamorous and exciting.

“Dawn?  Can you help me with my Heavy Cruiser?” Sulvia asked eagerly, rummaging around in the pile of assorted rods, blocks and miscellaneous shaped items.

Dawn laughed. “Let’s design our own one...  Bigger and better!”

“And I want it to be pink,” the Princess declared, picking out appropriately coloured components.

“Okaaayyy...” Dawn raised her eyebrows. “Pink it is, to be really scary for all the Empire’s enemies!”

As Joyce watched her daughter happily entertaining the younger girl, she hoped Sulvia would never have to succeed Drayana.  Not only because of all that implied for the latter, but also because it seemed so unfair that such a happy young child should ever be forced into the Imperial mould.

 

Drayana’s Bedroom, the Imperial Apartments, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 22nd January 2001 (Earth Date)

The Empress’ normally perfectly ordered room looked as though someone had thrown in a grenade.  The floor was littered with books, papers, and clothes, while Drayana was pacing back and forth in obvious agitation, cursing a blue streak at life in general and Regent Ilarius in particular.

Livia sighed and watched her sympathetically.  Drayana had always been a cheerful child, but also volatile at times.  When she was younger, tantrums hadn’t been infrequent, though never simply because she was being denied something.  Drayana had only tended to explode when she felt that she wasn’t in control, or helpless for some reason.  The outbursts had lessened dramatically over the years and, as an Empress, she’d learned to harness that passionate side to her nature to good effect.

Still, Livia was always aware that her daughter remained young and inexperienced, thrown into an awesomely powerful role, with incredible responsibility.  The situation was ridiculous on so many levels.  The Constitution granted Drayana full Imperial powers at fourteen, but it was a further five years before she was considered adult in the eyes of every other law.  Responsible for a whole Empire, but not even finished her schooling.  It was no wonder that occasionally Drayana found it all too much, despite of years of rigorous training.

Perhaps too rigorous, Livia thought, though it could also be said that Drayana’s thorough training regime had at least prepared her for a thoroughly hostile political environment.  Certainly, her performance as Empress had been nothing short of exemplary up to this point, especially considering the corrupt mess she’d inherited.

“Would you like to talk about it?” Livia offered gently.

Drayana turned towards her, shook her head, snarled and kicked at some papers on the floor.

Livia’s voice hardened slightly and she sat down on the bed. “That was a rhetorical question, Drayana.  We can deal with this two ways.  The first way is that I treat this as a petulant outburst.  In which case, you can adjust your clothing and present your bottom across my knee...  Or we can assume that there is something seriously upsetting you.  Then you can sit down beside me and take all the time you like to discuss it.  I would much rather you picked the second option!”

She patted the bed and Drayana slowly sat down beside her taller mother, eyes fixed on the floor.

Livia rubbed her back soothingly. “Just take a few breaths...”

The Empress sniffed, resting her head against her mother’s shoulder.

“I should have more control than this, but there have been so many things today, and my head hurts, and...” Drayana began.

“One thing at a time, maybe?” her mother suggested.

Drayana shuddered. “We can start with the part where I am a mass killer!  The latest casualty figures suggest that one-and-a-half million Xicavvar died when we attacked them – I attacked them – and that is a conservative estimate...”

“The Xicavvar initially attacked us, Drayana.  As our sovereign, it was your duty to respond – which you did in a measured fashion.  You did not invade them or exterminate entire planets, and the Xicavvar are still a free race – just not in a position to commit acts of aggression against anyone else.  And others may now think twice, before attacking our people in such a way,” Livia pointed out.

She wrapped a comforting arm around her daughter’s shoulders. “It is also healthy that you feel regret – even guilt – for such things, though best if you do not overdo it...  I would not like an Empress on the throne who cared nothing for sentient life.  That was the way of your grandmother’s grandmother.”

The Empress nodded. “I understand the logic – and I knew what I was doing when I ordered the counter-strike – but that does not alter my feelings.  I have arranged a session with Carolyn Lam again.”

Livia nodded approvingly. “Talk to her as much as you can – it helped before.  In fact, you should talk to anyone – within reason – who will listen.”

Drayana nodded silently.

“What else is troubling you?” her mother asked sagely.

“Regent Ilarius, who else?” the Empress’ eyes flashed suddenly.

“I do not know what do about him, mother.  The head of the Imperial Advisory Council, with a background you know all too well...  Conspiring with disgraced former Proconsuls...” Drayana continued.

“Conspiring?  How do you know this? Livia asked sharply, a mother’s protective instincts kicking in.

The Empress looked slightly sheepish and paused, before deciding to confide in her mother. “I only have circumstantial evidence so far.  One of my Imperial Guard detail had certain suspicions and decided to pursue these on an unofficial basis for the present.  With my continuing encouragement...  Ilarius has surrounded himself with those Proconsuls I dismissed – Triconatus, Tiburion, Flivius, half a dozen others – plus a Ch’Hanis.  Who is now a fugitive suspected of involvement in piracy around Thenatrix, plus murder and attempted murder.”

“Evidence collected on that type of unofficial spying might not be admissible under law,” Livia pointed out.

She might only be Keeper of the Imperial Household in the eyes of many, but that didn’t stop her being extremely knowledgeable on many things, especially given years of service around the most powerful figures in the Talluran Empire.

“As we have not yet been able to discover what they talk about, I cannot hand this over to the Security Directorate or the Imperial Guard,” Drayana pointed out.

“His involvement with a Ch’Hanis criminal – even after one brief meeting – might be enough,” her mother countered.

The Empress nodded. “But that is only part of the problem.  How do I deal with someone, on a day-to-day basis, when the probability is that they are working to bring about my downfall?  Or maybe even my death?  Whose position is currently protected by law – and who is now trying to interfere with how I raise Sulvia.  Not to mention that she – and you and father - are now potentially endangered by any plot that fucker may be engineering!”

“Drayana!” her mother exclaimed in warning.

“Can you think of a better term, mother?” the Empress replied, in slightly rebellious tones.

She exhaled. “Perhaps I am just paranoid.”

“You are not necessarily being paranoid, Drayana.  But bear in mind that only a handful of people in the Empire truly bear you malice.  Even the one who tried to kill you is now regretting her actions and motivations,” Livia pointed out.

“I received a communication from the Imperial Advisory Council, shortly after Ilarius and I had a full and frank exchange of views, when I told him exactly what I thought.  I believe he may have been slightly offended...” Drayana allowed.

Livia chuckled. “I suspect there was very little “exchange”, knowing you...  But please go on.”

For some time, she’d wondered just how long Drayana would manage to hold her tongue, given the mutual dislike existing between Regent and Empress.  Apparently, Drayana had finally stopped pretending.

“The message has his stink all over it!  “The Council requests and requires that the Empress and Princess Imperial meet with them, to discuss and approve plans for her education and training...”  Well, they can go kiss my lily-white ass!” the Empress was close to snarling and throwing items again, her mother realised.

This time she ignored the Terran crudity, especially since she was perilously close to agreeing with her daughter.

“That is pure bluster, Drayana, nothing more.  Which you would quickly realise, if you were in a less confrontational frame of mind,” Livia pointed out. “The Imperial Advisory Council has no role in this – and can have no role.  Legally, the Imperial Ward is your sole responsibility.  In fact, it is a criminal act to attempt to bring political influence to bear on the heir – which is why we were able to keep Ilarius out of your training.”

Drayana smiled – she actually hadn’t been aware of that particular law. “Perhaps I ought to remind them of the legal realities.”

Livia shrugged. “They are figureheads and an unnecessary complication in your life, but not one which should trouble you unduly.  You enjoy a fine working relationship with your Proconsuls – even when they are quarrelling amongst themselves – and you always obey the letter of Constitutional Law in your dealings with the Council.  Even though you ignore them in practice...  So if you are worried about Sulvia, officially remind them of their role – or lack of it.  And with Ilarius, as you already seem to have offended him, there would seem to be a case for quietly – and explicitly – hinting at the fate of anyone who might seek to harm Sulvia.  Centurion Vesarian might be useful to have present...”

She had her own worries about just what the Regent might be capable of.  Not as a political figure – Drayana was too well-entrenched for that – but as a potentially subversive element, surrounded by disgraced former officials, he might be capable of instigating anything, up to and including assassination.  Nevertheless, this was not the time to share such concerns with an agitated daughter. 

“Logically, I should have considered all of that, mother.  In fact, I did just that, this afternoon!  But those messages – and one from Septimus Antonian – made me lose my temper.  And my headache is also preventing me from thinking straight,” Drayana confessed.

“As soon as possible after the Imperial Gathering, you should take a few days – a week at least – and relax somewhere away from Tallura Prime.  With recent events, you deserve the break,” Livia suggested.

A nearly successful assassination attempt would have been enough to put anyone on edge.  Drayana had also recently been forced to contend with a small war, not to mention watching her back for what might well be another conspiracy, plus the responsibility of raising her own potential heir.  It was a great deal – perhaps too much – for a sixteen year-old Empress in a very short space of time.

“And as for your headache?  I will help you tidy this - this blast-zone - then you can go to bed, with a painkiller patch and some soup.  You are badly in need of some rest right now,” her mother told her resolutely.

Drayana started to protest. “But I was supposed to spend some time with Dawn.  And I promised to read Sulvia a story at bedtime...”

“Dawn will understand.  As for Sulvia, I can bring her in here and tell you both a story.  But I will hear no arguments,” Livia responded, in no-nonsense tones, then giving her daughter a reassuring kiss on cheek.

“Yes mother,” the Talluran Empress replied meekly, knowing when she was comprehensively outgunned, and somehow feeling reassured by the firm assertion of maternal authority.

 

Ilarius Estate, Outside Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 22nd January 2001 (Earth Date)

The Regent was in full rant mode, as his staff were finding out this evening.

“I cannot believe that the little brat humiliated me, in front of her Imperial Guard lackey!” Ilarius snarled. “I was a second away from slapping her arrogant little face...”

“Then that lackey would have carved you into little pieces,” Marius Triconatus advised, almost smugly.

Assuming, of course, that the Empress didn’t deal with Ilarius personally.  In terms of physical prowess, Triconatus knew that Drayana was more than a match for the ageing Regent.

Ilarius’ fellow conspirator was visiting tonight and was thoroughly enjoying the Regent’s discomfiture.  Usually, Ilarius had an air of superiority, given that he at least ostensibly still had the ear of the Empress, while the rest had all been dismissed from Imperial service.  Clearly, Drayana was growing tired of playing.

“You should be looking for ways to weaken her,” Triconatus pontificated.

The Regent glared at him. “She is politically unassailable right now – we have already discussed this.”

“So aim to hurt her on a more personal level.  Through her parents, her cousin, or that young Terran...” the former Proconsul for the Treasury suggested. “If an accident were to happen to any of them, she would be devastated.”

Ilarius nodded slowly. “It might take time to set up a such an accident and I would need more information, but the Terran would seem to be an ideal target – Drayana’s cousin will be much more heavily protected and her parents seldom leave the palace.”

“So increase the number of people you have shadowing the Terrans when they are in the city,” Triconatus nodded. “Then start thinking creatively.”

 

Aquiliani slipped through the bushes outside Ilarius’ mansion, intent on planting a miniature microphone.  This was still very much an unofficial operation but, after an unpleasant confrontation today, Drayana had asked the Centurion to increase her efforts.  All she needed was some evidence of plotting – however small – and the Security Directorate could mount a far more effective intelligence gathering operation.

 

“I want two or three of you shadowing the Terrans at all times, when they leave the palace,” Ilarius instructed his staff.

“They are in the Old City often enough.  What that little Terran “princess” wants, she seems to get from the Empress,” one of his spies grunted disapprovingly.

He hadn’t heard the rumours, just that the Terran brat appeared somewhat spoiled in attitudes and treatment, from what he’d seen so far.

“I want to make sure that this “princess” gets what she deserves...” Ilarius assured him with an evil snigger.

 

Jugrub had his own agenda here tonight.  Ilarius was on his revenge list, the Regent having encouraged the Hand of Purity to try to kill him.  Everyone in their cosy little treasonous circle, in fact.  Ilarius would be last to die – but the reptilian still had to gather intelligence.

He’d just collected a little more confirmation, with regard to his other project.  Apparently, from what he’d just overheard, the young Terran really was a Princess.  Moreover, it seemed that the Ch’Hanis wasn’t the only one with plans to deal with the alien interloper.  Perhaps he could make more effective use of Ilarius’ otherwise ridiculously ineffective spies.

 

Aquiliani was still easing her way into position, when she spotted a shadowy figure up ahead.  He or she was physically much too bulky to be a Talluran, but a cloak hid the features.  Someone else, nonetheless, was also apparently spying on the Regent.  Her own orders were to avoid contact at all costs, so she started to edge away, hand nevertheless close to her Plasma Pistol and knife.

At that moment, Jugrub caught the faint aroma of Talluran in his nostrils and spun around to face yet another cloaked figure.  The reptilian reacted on instinct and pounced, mouth open to bite and claws ready to tear.

Aquiliani reacted instantly with a solid kick to the head, which had little immediate effect, but at least gave her a few seconds to move out of the way.  A flash of teeth and angry red eyes told he what she was facing.  A full-grown Ch’Hanis.  Too much for the diminutive Imperial Guard to deal with hand-to-hand, but there were other methods.  The Plasma Pistol was in her hand in an instant.  The sudden glare of security lights flashing on around the mansion unfortunately dazzled her for a moment, spoiling her aim.  The shot went slightly wide of the mark, as the Ch’Hanis realised discretion was the best part of valour and disappeared into the trees.  Aquiliani promptly also decided to make herself scarce and vanished into the darkness.

At least Ilarius had another enemy, which was some consolation for her abortive mission tonight.  If this was the same Ch’Hanis she’d observed with Ilarius on her first recon trip – then tentatively identified as a suspected smuggler – he had now been officially named as a pirate by the Ch’Hanis authorities, and was on the run from the Talluran authorities.  With any luck, the reptilian would deal with the Regent.

  

Proconsular Department of Alien Affairs, Palace of Proconsuls, The Old City, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 23rd January 2001 (Earth Date)

“How can I help you both today?  Mettius Bruccian, Proconsul for Alien Affairs, smiled pleasantly at the arrivals.

He hadn’t been expecting the Triannite and N’Gluk Ambassadors to visit today, but there was time on his schedule.  Indeed, there always had to be time for the Empire’s oldest allies in the Vedda Galaxy.

“We have heard some disconcerting rumours, which you might be able to clarify, Proconsul,” the Triannite Ambassador’s tail twitched and he tapped one of his rear hooves slightly.

“Rumours?” Bruccian hadn’t heard any particularly interesting gossip recently.

“That the Talluran Empire is in the process of concluding an alliance with a new galactic superpower,” the N’Gluk Ambassador responded flatly, his three huge eyes boring into the Proconsul.

The Triannite Ambassador nodded. “A superpower as potent as the Khkerrikk or Jarrasii, by all accounts.”

Bruccian blinked.  That was certainly news to him.  To the best of his knowledge, no one had encountered a new alien race in a while, and most certainly not any power on the scale of the Khkerrikk star Empire or Jarrasii Empire.  The only new aliens they’d encountered since he came to power were the Terran visitors -and they could hardly be the object of a rumour like this.

“I can assure the N’Gluk Alliance and Triannite Kingdom that the Talluran Empire has encountered no such power.  Your governments would, in any case, be fully informed of any such negotiations, according to the terms of our treaties.  Our alliance has always functioned on a basis of openness,” the Proconsul assured them.

The two ambassadors eyed him suspiciously, as though searching for any signs of artifice.  Certainly the Tallurans had always been open in their dealings - except when Ilarius was Regent.  With the new Empress in place, relations had once more improved dramatically, and they hoped that trend would continue.

“We will, of course, continue to investigate the source of any such rumours, but I can assure you that they are utterly false,” Bruccian continued.

“In the interests of continuing good relations between our peoples, we would hope so.  You will, of course, understand that we will also have to investigate this further ourselves, in case we have been the target of a deliberate campaign of disinformation,” the N’Gluk representative told him.

Bruccian nodded. “We will certainly be conducting a similar investigation.”

He also wondered if someone was deliberately trying to disrupt the links between the Empire and its two allies.  If so, this sounded like a high-level operation and he’d instruct the Security and Intelligence services to concentrate initially on the top-end diplomatic levels.  After all, rumours didn’t reach this level simply as the result of some prank.

 

Imperial Research Division, Unnamed Planet, Vedda Galaxy – 23rd January 2001 (Earth Date)

The Spear had already been on the planet for several days, but so far hadn’t found anything to be alarmed about.  On the other hand, the city was still only partially checked, with the buildings carved out of the canyon cliffs proving especially time-consuming to search.  In most cases, they penetrated far more deeply into the cliffs, in a warren of passageways and levels, than anticipated.

None of the current team had ever encountered more than a vampire, turned from a number of different alien species.  In the Vedda Galaxy, lines of mystical power were few and far between, also tending to be weaker than their equivalents in the Milky way.  All the team had, of course, read what history survived about the titanic battle between what were known as the Old Ones and the Alterans – including a Talluran contingent – on Terra.  Massive firepower and technological advantage, with magical support, pitched against demons of incredible size and power.  Eventually the two sides had fought each other to a a standstill, a plague forcing the Alterans to temporarily abandon that world, while the Old Ones were so diminished in number and power that the survivors gradually made their way to other dimensions.

None of The Spear currently anticipated meeting anything on that scale, though the historical record also suggested that there were still a few demons somewhat more formidable in size and power than vampires in the Vedda Galaxy.  If they did meet one, the twelve-man team was on its own, aside from the Imperial Guard Special Operations detachment already on the planet.  The Tallurans didn’t even dare send a warship to offer orbital support, given this world’s proximity to the Khkerrikk Star Empire.  It was essential that the research team’s activities remain secret from one of the two most powerful species in the galaxy.

“This is the edge of our search zone.  We should stop here,” one of the Tallurans warned his compatriot, who was about to enter another dark tunnel.

“Why?” the second man of the patrolling pair demanded, training his tactical light around the walls. “We have been here for three days.  There are no footprints, apart from our own.  No pentagrams, no mystical runes, no bones, no bloodstains.”

He pointed to the tunnel. “If we finish this today, then we can move to another sector tomorrow.”

The other Imperial Guard accepted his logic. “I will just report in...”

“If you can,” the second Talluran snorted. “Communications are pretty poor this far inside the rock...”

After a few minutes, his prediction was confirmed.  Any Sunnydale veteran would have known better, but The Spear were inexperienced in such matters and the two searchers continued into the darkness, Personal Combat Weapons at the ready, with an array of sharp and pointy types also within reach.

Finding themselves at the top of a spiral staircase, the two Tallurans slowly made their way down, spotting nothing of note on the plain rocky walls.  It was a long way down, a count ending at four-hundred and seven steps.  They emerged into an open, empty chamber, with several openings.  Obviously this would take longer than anticipated.  By mutual agreement, the two Tallurans turned, to begin the lengthy climb back to the surface.

Neither of them even saw the tentacles that suddenly emerged from the darkness, grabbing the two men by the neck and dragging them swiftly and noiselessly into one of the passages.
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