To Kill a Queen
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:
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). Square of the Honoured Fallen, Old City, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 4th January 2001 (Earth Date)
Attempted regicide was a very rare crime on Tallura Prime, with the last case occurring two centuries previously – and that unfortunate had been suffering from a degenerative disease of the brain tissue. Nevertheless, all Talluran monarchs were instructed in a range of precautionary measures. Drayana had been taught to protect herself almost from the moment she could walk. Back then, it had been a matter of kicking an enemy in the shins, screaming and running. Nowadays, of course, the Empress was much better trained and equipped to deal with potential assassins.
Drayana instantly noticed that she was between her bodyguard and the attacker and, in a flash, realised that she’d have to deal with this herself. Helia Tren’s knife was only inches from her throat when the Empress threw up her left arm to protect herself, deflecting the killing stroke, and only sustaining a minor cut to the side of her hand. Simultaneously, she stamped down hard on the outside of her assailant’s knee, shattering the joint and ripping the tendons to shreds. Drayana’s right hand, meanwhile, closed around the hilt of her sword.
The ultra-light, ultra-strong weapon wasn’t only intended for ornamental wear. With a minimum of force, the Empress almost casually lopped off her would-be assassin’s knife-arm at the shoulder, even before Tren’s wrecked knee collapsed under her own weight.
The young woman sprawled on the ground, screaming with rage and pain, blood jetting from severed blood vessels. A swarm of Imperial Guard descended on the failed assassin, including a medic, if only to keep her alive until the trial.
Drayana exhaled deeply. She’d never been so close to dying and it wasn’t a pleasant sensation. At least her training had kicked in automatically. Then she spotted Tren’s neatly amputated arm and, all at once, started to shiver.
“Are you alright, Excellency?” Vesarian asked gently, appearing beside her.
“Better than I deserve to be,” the Empress admitted wryly. “Perhaps one of these days, I will learn to heed your advice.”
The Imperial Guard Captain smiled conspiratorially. “I will always deny saying this, Your Excellency... But you would not be the Empress we all respect so much, if you allowed the prospect of danger to influence your actions.”
He glanced uncomfortably at the crowd. They’d been in a happy, contented mood earlier. Now there was a growing, angry murmur, that someone would dare try to kill their beloved Empress. Only a thin line of Civic Patrol officers and Imperial Guard now stood between Tren and a potential lynch-mob. According to his units on the surrounding rooftops, someone towards the rear of the crowd was already passing a length of rope towards the front, the intention clear.
Vesarian had no illusions that they’d kill the injured assassin in a flash. Tallurans were still warriors at heart, historically much more passionate than their other Ancient brethren. It was the main reason why they’d rejected the notion of Ascension, given the need to control their passions and emotions to an unacceptable level. Passions that could be unleashed very violently when something – or someone – dear to them was threatened.
“Essential treatment only, then get her out of here... Before that crowd decides to hang her from the nearest tree – or maybe just tear her apart with their bare hands,” Vesarian ordered the group clustered around Tren.
The Imperial Guard Centurion had no particular fondness for the would-be murderess – indeed, he was looking forward to her receiving the ultimate penalty at the treason trial – but the rule of law was an essential part of any society. In addition, Vesarian didn’t want his Empress anywhere near a potential angry mob, even if they’d never hurt her deliberately.
“With all respect, Your Excellency, under the circumstances it might be better if you were to postpone this part of The Address. In fact, I must insist on this occasion,” the Centurion told her firmly.
“I believe you may be right, Centurion,” Drayana admitted.
She looked at the fallen woman and shook her head disbelievingly. “I would very much like to speak with her, to learn why she would do such a thing...”
“I doubt you would receive a rational explanation,” Vesarian opined with a grunt.
“I suppose you are...” Drayana’s voice suddenly trailed off.
The Empress’ vision was blurring alarmingly and her limbs felt abnormally heavy. All at once, breathing was difficult and there was a dull pain in her chest.
“Shar... I do not feel too well...” she slurred, then abruptly crumpled in a heap, as a moan went up from the crowd.
Startled by the unusual use of his first name, Vesarian was shocked to see his Empress collapse. He was at her side in an instant, urgently gesturing for a medic.
“She has stopped breathing!” the medic announced, immediately commencing CPR.
“Alert the Imperial Physician and have her evacuated immediately!” Vesarian ordered crisply.
“There are no obvious wounds, aside from that tiny laceration on her hand...” a second medic announced in puzzlement.
“Laceration?” Vesarian suddenly didn’t like where this was leading. “Bring me that – that woman’s knife!”
One sniff was all he needed to confirm his worst suspicions, the nightmare scenario of the Empress badly injured or killed on his watch. Tren’s knife had definitely been dipped in poison of some sort, though he couldn’t say what.
The Centurion glanced around desperately. There was nowhere to land a shuttle, not with crowds on this scale. Moreover, there were also thousands of people between the Empress and the nearest Transporter Pad. That left only one solution.
Twenty seconds later, the Empress, her medics and several guards disappeared in a flash of Asgard transporter beam. With a Heavy Cruiser in defensive orbit, the most effective solution was to use its systems to beam her directly to the hospital, together with the knife for urgent lab analysis.
Vesarian glared coldly at Tren’s semi-conscious body, as more Imperial Guards began to deploy, this time clad in their all-enclosing battle armour. Just in case any other plotters decided to take advantage of the situation.
“Take that treasonous creature out of here the same way,” he ordered, fighting down the urge to turn his weapon on Tren. “I want her to survive this, so that she can be executed properly!” Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 4th January 2001 (Earth Date)
There were no lessons today for Dawn, or anything organised for the others. The Address was a major event and doubled as a public holiday throughout the Talluran Empire. The Terrans were all gathered around a huge 3D holographic display, with a more than adequate supply of food and local wine-equivalents, watching with interest as the events unfolded on the local CNN equivalent. Predictably, Dawn had found some of the Empress’ speechifying in the Consular Houses to be somewhat boring, but the others all agreed that she certainly had a gift for rhetoric. Indeed, the barely sixteen-year-old had experienced politicians four, five and six times her age eating out of her young hand. There was no doubt that her proposed programme for the coming year would pass through the multiple legislative layers, without any problems. Given the dramatic upsurge in economic growth across the Empire, together with unparalleled popularity ratings – in both cases at levels politicos on Earth wouldn’t even dare to dream about - it would be political suicide for any Consul to oppose her.
The adults were all, nonetheless, rather tense. They knew there had been a serious threat made on Drayana’s life, while Faith had been asked to help head it off. Dawn was happily oblivious, as they’d agreed there was no point in having her worry – hopefully unnecessarily – about her friend/temporary big sister.
Joyce had to admit that it was a somewhat odd relationship. Back home, she’d be hard pressed to find someone Drayana’s age who’d happily hang out with a twelve-year-old. On the other hand, the Empress had been brought up without much contact with those around her own age, a traditional approach to raising the heir that her Guardian and Tutor both now agreed had probably been mistaken. Drayana was, Joyce had to admit, an odd mixture. At times, she was mature to the nth degree – this morning’s speeches and her ability to engage in political debate with those many years her senior were clear evidence of that – while at others, she had a mischievous streak and sense of fun more appropriate to someone Dawn’s age.
But it was also clear that the Empress felt immensely protective towards her young guest, and not merely as a result of a sense of honour or even friendship. In fact, a large number of Tallurans were behaving like that. From the little that Joyce knew about The Key – when she actually admitted Dawn’s true identity to herself – she recalled that the spell made Slayers unconsciously protective around her. That certainly accounted for the radical change in relationship with Faith, but Drayana wasn’t a Slayer. In fact, there had never been such a thing among the Tallurans.
But what if the spell went further than the Slayers? Their hosts’ closest relatives were apparently a race of incredibly powerful Ascended beings – and who knew what effect that might have?
Joyce mentally shrugged. It didn’t really matter, just so long as her daughter was safe and happy here. Very occasional man-eating aliens and plotting politicians apart – and assuming that there wasn’t some sort of apocalyptic confrontation between the competing powers – Dawn was certainly safer here than back in Sunnydale, Hell Goddess or not.
“Oh fuck!” Logan suddenly swore, forgetting to be careful of his language around Dawn.
“Oh jeez...” Lam gasped, in somewhat more moderate terms, hands pressed against her mouth.
A figure had just lunged at the Empress from the crowd, a knife glinting in her hand. For an instant, there was a collective deep breath, then everyone exhaled as Drayana both effortlessly fended off and seriously injured her attacker. The holo-imager caught the Empress in an impressive pose, ready for action with her sword at the prospective assassin’s throat.
“She’s good! Really good...” the SG-15 CO acknowledged with some feeling.
“Drayana’s the best, mom! She’s nearly as fast as a Slayer...” Dawn exaggerated, bouncing up and down on the huge sofa with excitement.
Joyce winced as the local news media zoomed in on a severed arm.
“I’d rather you didn’t have to see that, honey,” she grimaced.
In truth, Joyce didn’t even like Buffy Slaying in front of her sister. She even had memories of making that rule from when the Slayer was still in school – except, of course, that she hadn’t really.
“Serves that fricking bitch right! Oops...” Dawn suddenly realised that she’d said the wrong thing.
Joyce fixed her with a glare worthy of her Slayer offspring. “ “Oops” indeed, Dawn Marie Summers. And if I hear you using these words again, we’ll be trying a few others. The usual favourites, like “oowwww” or “no more, mom”... D’you hear me, missy?”
SG-15 tried to suppress their sniggers as the youngster looked suitably abashed. “Sorry, mom.”
The room abruptly fell silent, as the holo-imagers caught the instant Drayana collapsed. For a moment, the view was obscured by Imperial Guard and Civic patrol officers rushing to and fro, but then they had a clear view of an unconscious Empress receiving CPR.
“Mom... What’s the matter with Drayana?” Dawn was suddenly clinging to her mother.
“I don’t know, honey. Maybe she just fainted from the shock,” Joyce offered helplessly.
“People who faint don’t generally need CPR,” Lam replied quietly.
“I don’t think she was wounded,” Sato noted.
“Difficult to say, without a close-up,” Logan shook his head. “They were only inches from each other.”
Close enough for all manner of sneaky tricks, in other words.
“Mommy? Is she gonna be okay?” Dawn was using her frightened little girl tones, as she hung onto Joyce for dear life.
Joyce sounded pained. “I don’t know what’s wrong, Dawn.”
Out of the blue, there was a tell-tale flash of light, and the Empress and her attendants dematerialised in the blink of an eye.
“Asgard transporter beam,” Sato noted tersely. “Probably the quickest way to get her to a hospital.”
“That’s an ugly-looking crowd. If they get hold of that woman, she’s dead meat,” Lieutenant Ashborne, one of SG-15, opined darkly.
It was, indeed, debatable whether the security forces would be able to prevent a lynching. An overhead holo-image showed some of the crowd starting to edge forward, while others were being jostled by those behind.
“Good! And I hope it really hurts!” Dawn burst out.
Joyce didn’t really disagree, but that also wasn’t the sort of thing she wanted to hear from her daughter. “You shouldn’t think like that, Dawn.”
“I don’t care! She hurt Drayana, so she deserves it,” the young brunette responded with the bald logic of youth.
“Never was a truer word spoken...” Sato muttered under his breath, only to be silenced by a glare from Lam.
“Come on, honey. I think we’ve seen enough,” Joyce gently but firmly led her protesting daughter from the room, having no wish to expose Dawn to what might be a very public mob killing.
“But I want to hear about Drayana...” the youngster protested, on the verge of tears.
“I don’t think we’ll hear anything for a while,” Lam decided to follow mother and daughter.
If the aftermath of the attack progressed in the same way as on Earth, the news would be full of uncertainty, unconfirmed reports, “expert” commentary, rumours and downright lies for some hours to come. In the meantime, the psychiatrist knew Joyce would have a very distressed Dawn to deal with, and could probably use all the help she could get.
SG-15, meanwhile, continued to crowd around the holo-viewer. Another flash indicated that the authorities had decided to remove the injured assassin from the scene, as additional security forces arrived on the scene and the sky filled with shuttles and gravity cars.
The news channel was now replaying the attack in slow-motion, zooming in to an incredibly high level of magnification, with a resolution to match. The tiny knife wound received by the Empress was all too clear.
“I’m guessing that was a poisoned blade, people,” Logan said soberly, hoping they had an antidote – and that it could be administered before it was too late.
Like the others, he’d grown very fond of the lively young Empress in a short period of time, and simply couldn’t understand why anyone might want to harm her. As far as he could tell, she’d done nothing but good for the Empire since taking power.
For the Empire, he reminded himself. There were plenty of outside influences who might be quite happy to see her dead, even to the point of suborning one of the handful of disaffected Tallurans. And an assassin was hardly likely to use a weak poison, or a well-known and easily treatable one, the Colonel reminded himself.
“Fuck,” Sato shook his head.
“Amen to that, Captain,” his CO agreed heavily. Centurion Vesarian’s Office, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 4th January 2001 (Earth Date)
“This does not sound good,” Aquiliani admitted, as she and Faith returned to base.
“If only I’d volunteered for fucking close escort!” the Slayer growled. “Then that skank woulda been chopped into kibbles before she could blink...”
Her Imperial Guard companion had no idea what kibbles were, though she could hazard a guess from the context.
“Of that, I have no doubt...” Aquiliani began.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Faith responded by kicking the heavy metal waste bin by Vesarian’s desk into useless scrap.
Aquiliani regarded the instant abstract metal sculpture with some foreboding, before continuing. “As I was saying, Diana, there is one slight flaw in your argument...”
“Which is?” the Slayer glared balefully at her.
“If you had accompanied the Empress, there is a good chance we would not have detected her accomplice, until it was too late. Her Excellency may be gravely ill, but there are antidotes for poison. A plasma burst to the head, on the other hand, tends to have instant and fatal results,” the Decurion responded carefully.
Aquiliani also knew she was talking to her own guilt. Every single member of the Imperial Guard Protective Division probably felt the same way tonight, just as her Slayer companion did. It might not be their fault – even indirectly – that Drayana was hovering at death’s door, but it had happened on their duty watch.
“Yeah... But it doesn’t really help. I still feel like I fucked up, Eppy,” Faith confirmed the other women’s own feelings, “Eppy” being as close to Ephichara as she was prepared to go.
“You will want to return to your own people,” Aquiliani sighed. “But I will go to the hospital, to make sure no one gets anywhere near Her Excellency while she is vulnerable.”
The fact that the Medical Clinic was now probably the most heavily protected place on Tallura Prime was neither here nor there. The Decurion was part of the Protective Division, on direct assignment to guard the Empress and her guests, and she’d defend her monarch until she heard her own death rattle.
“I’m comin’ with you,” Faith declared.
“Your own responsibilities...” Aquiliani began to protest.
“My own responsibilities are wrapped up, tight as a nun’s – uh – pretty well defended in the palace. You know how difficult that place is to get into – try fricking impossible, without trippin’ an alarm and bringing a thousand guards down on your ass. ‘Sides, little D and Joyce have SG-15 with them, as well as the palace guards,” Faith argued.
“Diana, you do not need to...” the Imperial Guard was cut off again.
Faith shook her head defiantly. “Your CO asked me to help protect the Empress, Eppy. Only managed to stop one threat up to now, but if there’s another? I’ll be damned if it gets through me this time. The Empress has been way too kind to us Earthlings – now I get to repay a bit of it.”
Redemption, the Slayer noted, was taking her in some weird directions. Not only thousands of light years from home and protecting the little sister of her former enemy, but also now defending an alien Empress. Who, Faith had to admit, deserved protecting way more than any fricking self-serving politician back on Earth. Medical Clinic, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 4th January 2001 (Earth Date)
Healer Gaius Valarien was a very worried man. The Empress’ personal physician was at something of an impasse. For now, the life support apparatus was keeping Drayana alive, but her vital organs were shutting down one at a time. He was using a combination of blood replacement and a sophisticated blood-cleansing machine – effectively a futuristic version of a dialysis machine, with many other applications – in an effort to remove the poison, but it had probably already penetrated her organs. Of course, once he had a clear idea what the agent actually was, he could then either administer an antidote, or synthesise one if none was available. However, the longer the identification process took, the more havoc the poison would wreak on Drayana’s body.
“Should I call her cousin?” Livia, the Empress’ Guardian, asked uncertainly.
Drayana’s cousin – actually several times removed – was the current “spare to the throne”, given that the Empress was too young to produce an heir. The twenty-six year-old Xenobiology student had absolutely no desire to take the throne, enjoying his freedom too much. As second-in-line to the Imperial throne, he’d nevertheless received at least some instruction – albeit much less intensive than Drayana – up to the age of nineteen. As per custom, they’d also been raised separately, mainly for the sake of security.
Septimus currently lived on the planet Vertium, in a relatively nearby system. If Drayana remained alive, though unable to rule, then the Proconsulate would take decisions in the short term. If she died, then he’d be summoned to Tallura Prime forthwith, no doubt kicking and screaming all the way.
Given that a large Imperial Guard presence had just materialised around his home, just in case someone targeted the current heir, Septimus had probably already reached the screaming part. At least the Imperial guard would probably frighten off the latest trollops, Livia decided – Septimus was a notorious womaniser.
“I believe that might be somewhat premature,” Valarien responded, in his most optimistic tones.
Livia nodded appreciatively and sternly commanded herself not to weep like a child. She might have raised Drayana overly strictly at times, but the Empress was still the closest thing to a daughter she had, and she certainly loved her like one. The thought that she might lose the talented girl, who had such a bright future ahead of her, was almost unbearable.
Privately, Valarien wasn’t so sure of his positive prognosis. If that poison couldn’t be identified – and so far tests on all the most well-known varieties had come back negative - then he’d have the dubious reputation of being the first Imperial Physician to lose a monarch to anything other than old-age related ailments in over two hundred years. But that was unacceptable. He’d tended Drayana since she was a baby and he wouldn’t give up, not without using every means at his disposal.
If only that infernal laboratory would report back, he fumed, pacing the room. Imperial Guard Headquarters, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 4th January 2001 (Earth Date)
“Paralytic poison...” Defence Force General Piretus slammed his hand down hard on the table. “Who do we know that spits such a substance? Which, in its refined form, has been used as an assassination weapon?”
“We do not know for certain if it is the Ch’Hanis,” Admiral Severan responded.
The head of the Imperial Defence Forces and the smaller Imperial Guard were traditionally rivals and Piretus found the latter’s command privileges over his own units to be particularly galling, especially since Severan had the Empress’ ear. So did he, of course, but he didn’t use it as much as he should, the old General admitted to himself.
“And while we wait for laboratory results, they could be getting ready to hit us,” the General shot back impatiently.
“Such a toxin is relatively easy to obtain, General. It could be something very different. And it was not the Ch’Hanis we fought on Thenatrix, nor in the Mardenius Nebula,” Severan reminded him.
Which didn’t of course, mean that someone might not wish them to think it was the reptilians.
“Pyriam’s foreknowledge of the attempt points in a different direction,” the Admiral suggested.
Surely, she thought, that fact ought to be blindingly obvious to the old fool.
Piretus exhaled impatiently. “So it is the Xicavvar we will fight.”
The General was more than happy with that idea. A swift four-pronged attack – one group to each of the three main Xicavvar worlds, another to fix and destroy their fleet – and the insectoids would be on their knees. It wasn’t mere bombast and professional arrogance on his part, either. In terms of numbers, technology and training, the Imperial Defence Force and Imperial Guard held all the cards. Without outside support, the Xicavvar Concordium armed forces didn’t stand a chance against the Talluran Empire.
“We are not here to make a decision on who – if anyone – we will be fighting,” Marcius Restiniar of the Security Bureau pointed out briskly.
Severan intensely disliked the civilian head of that Bureau. He was a little too smooth and smug for her liking, with a tendency to over-talk an issue. A career bureaucrat who would happily find his niche in any department.
“Until we determine the extent of Xicavvar involvement in the attack on Thenatrix and its colony worlds – and whether they even knew of the assassination attempt on Her Excellency – we cannot deliver a proposal for war to the Proconsulate,” he added.
“They asked us for options – plural. Some of these may be military in nature. After all, if they had been seeking diplomatic options, the Proconsulate would not have approached us,” Severan pointed out acerbically.
“I would also remind you that Her Excellency is opposed to a war on the Xicavvar Concordium... And with anyone else, for that matter,” Restiniar countered.
Piretus used his most sarcastic tones. “Her Excellency is a pragmatist, not a dogmatic pacifist. I would tend to assume that she would also be likely to change her mind, if a definite link could be established between the insects and this attempt on her life...”
His Empress might have a natural reluctance to use armed force, but her swift and unambiguous actions on Thenatrix and in the Mardenius Nebula were also a reminder to the Empire’s enemies that she was still a Talluran. Their people hadn’t survived as a civilization for longer than all their neighbours simply by ignoring provocation. Today’s rearmament proposals simply underlined that fact.
“We three are simply charged with producing options and recommendations for the Proconsulate. And as time is of the essence, I would strongly suggest moving additional forces towards the Xicavvar Frontier, and also increasing the defences around our major colonies. In addition, we should raise the alert status of all our forces and recall reservists,” Severan decided that her opposite number needed some support here, in the face of Restiniar’s predictable objections.
The fact was, if the civilians in the Security Bureau had been doing their jobs properly, none of this might have occurred. Thousands of Talluran citizens might still be alive and her Empress wouldn’t be fighting for her life.
“Raising our alert levels at this point may simply invite attack,” Restiniar protested.
“There is not a power out there which would not do so, in response to a possible attack on their central authority figure,” Piretus growled.
“Besides, the Xicavvar do not have the resources to mount a successful first strike against us,” he continued.
“With the support of the Zaharte?” Restiniar retorted. “I think you are being overly optimistic.”
“Let them come!” the crusty old General growled.
Restiniar sighed theatrically. “Exactly the sort of attitude which will result in a general war and disaster for all of us.”
“The Zaharte have made no public declarations in support of the Xicavvar attack on Thenatrix, whatsoever. They are never shy about announcing their intentions, except when they have no intention of involving themselves,” Severan reminded him.
She had no intention of following either Restiniar’s wait-and-see policy – things were too fast-moving for that – or Piretus and his predictable wish to lay waste the Xicavvar homeworld and all its colonies.
“You would wait until the Xicavvar had dragged us all home in cocoons, as food for their larvae,” Piretus snarled at the civilian.
The Admiral shrugged. “This is getting us nowhere. Clearly, we are not about to form a common position within a reasonable timeframe. The Proconsulate shall, therefore, receive my recommendations, which I believe fall somewhere between your respective positions. Feel free to submit your own proposals, but until I am ordered to do otherwise? I will see to the security of the Empire by raising the alert level as I see fit.”
She looked pointedly at Restiniar. “We are also still awaiting your Bureau’s analysis of the intelligence material obtained on Thenatrix. If your staff do their jobs properly, we might actually have a clearer idea if there was official Xicavvar sanction.”
Severan’s face darkened. “And in the meantime? If there is the slightest suggestion that they are implicated in this assassination attempt? Then we will talk no longer, Marcius Restiniar. I will personally make war on them, a war no one in this region of the galaxy will forget for millennia.”
Restiniar swallowed and paled somewhat, while the ruddy-faced balding General simply cheered, grinned and waved a wizened fist in the air.
If she survived, Drayana would be well-advised to replace these two, the Admiral decided grimly, gathering up her notes and leaving the room. The Triconatus Estate, Outside Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – January 4th 2001 (Earth Date)
“I cannot stay for long. Under current conditions, we are likely to be noticed. Besides, the Proconsulate may wish to update the Imperial Advisory Council at any time,” Ilarius told his co-conspirators.
Marcus Triconatus, former Proconsul to the Treasury smirked. “This is a fortunate turn of events for us. The brat may be dying – and our hands will remain totally clean.”
Ilarius shook his head impatiently. “On the contrary, it will be a disaster if she dies right now. Our plans rely on a gradual transition of power, undermining her position with both the Consular Houses and the people. Perhaps destroying the credibility of the Imperial throne forever. A martyr, dying at the peak of her popularity, does not serve our position in the slightest. And the security clampdown that will result, whether she lives or dies? That fool Pyriam may have done more damage than he could have guessed.”
“Especially if that feckless, womanising idiot Septimus has to take the throne – at least in the short term,” Dar Tiburion, former Proconsul for the Interior, grimaced.
“Are the rumours true?” Triconatus asked. “I heard five women at a time...”
“My sources say no more than three,” Ilarius shrugged. “But we are not here to discuss the fool’s whoring tendencies.”
Tiburion nonchalantly filed his nails. “If Drayana survives, our task will be harder than ever. Her speeches today? Those fools in the Consular Houses lapped up every word. She has them dancing like puppets – and the sympathy factor will make her hold almost impossible to free.”
“Can we blame them? The Empire has not achieved economic growth at these levels in centuries. Trade levels are unprecedented, the people are prosperous and happy – even her rearmament proposals will not have a serious impact on Treasury holdings,” Tria Flivius, ex-Proconsul for Infrastructure pointed out.
“Her economic model is not sustainable,” Triconatus sniffed.
“She removed you from office for policies that had not delivered results in fifteen years,” Flivius smirked and twisted the knife.
“My policies needed time to mature,” the former Proconsul to the Treasury scowled at her.
Tiburion frowned. “Drayana’s rearmament programme may not come soon enough, if this ends in war. That idiot Pyriam on Thenatrix may yet be the downfall of us all.”
Ilarius decided that it wasn’t a good time to mention his role in causing the initial famine crisis, though the Planetary Governor’s decision to seek Xicavvar assistance and try to secede from the Empire had come as a surprise to them all. Perhaps these reductions in the armed forces they’d all supported during the years of the Regency hadn’t been such a good idea after all.
Drayana was seeking to change that now, with massive quantitative and qualitative improvements to both the Imperial Defence Force and the Imperial Guard. Manpower would not be a problem, either. Every Talluran citizen was aware that they were surrounded by potential enemies and for each post in the armed services offered by the recruiters, there were four good applicants. Several construction docks across the Empire, mothballed for some years, would be recommissioned, while periods of service and reserve obligations were also to be extended slightly, to allow time to recruit and train the additional personnel.
The Empress was also intelligent enough to realise that any such effort couldn’t be undertaken overnight, so she’d also announced a programme of improved diplomatic and economic links with the surrounding powers. There was, of course, the very real risk of an arms race, but the Tallurans had the technology to build ships faster than their neighbours.
“Do you think Caelius Tren had any role in his children’s little assassination plot?” Tiburion enquired.
Flivius laughed harshly. “Tren would no sooner conspire against the Empress than I would bite my own hand off. He has this foolish sense of guilt, for simply doing what we all did.”
For which you were all caught, Ilarius told himself silently. His own financial misdeeds had been kept at a level which wouldn’t attract attention, unlike these greedy fools. All had paid the price, but only Caelius Tren admitted his guilt.
He looked around at his compatriots. They’d all grown fat –literally and figuratively – on the illicit spoils of their office, while forgetting the essential lesson the Regent would never forget. Namely, that power was all that really mattered in the long-run. Accretion of wealth could never compensate for losing power. Eventually, he’d have to find some supporters who understood that message, but in the meantime he was stuck with these individuals.
“According to the Security Bureau, he actually informed on his own son and daughter,” the Regent clarified.
Triconatus made a noise of disgust. “If he had not done so, perhaps their bungled assassination attempt would have succeeded.”
“ “Bungled” is right, Marcus. The Empress herself was able to deal with one attacker – and one has to ask what the Imperial Guard were doing... If it had been me, I would have removed the attacker’s head, not merely her arm. As for the other? I can still hardly believe it. Killed by an arrow in the head, fired by one of the Terrans...” Flivius shook her head.
An archaic weapon of war, but still obviously effective, especially in the hands of the barbarous Terrans Drayana had agreed to host.
“Through his head, not in it,” Ilarius corrected dryly. “It was the one they call a Slayer who detected Acamos Tren and fired the shot. A very powerful weapon, fired by an extremely strong and skilled individual. According to the reports, the arrow struck him between the eyes and exited – in its entirety – from the back of his skull.”
If – or when – the time came to move against the Terrans, that was a lesson to bear in mind, he considered.
“So what should we do?” Flivius nervously asked the group as a whole, as though she expected the Slayer to appear at the window and start picking them off one-by-one.
“I have received several messages from Jugrub. He is concerned that the Security Bureau are getting closer to him,” Tiburion added.
The Security Bureau had once been part of his own Directorate and he had no illusions about what they could do, given effective leadership and clear objectives. And within the Talluran population, a single Ch’Hanis stood out as clearly as a dark stain on a white wall.
“Let them take him. If we need the assistance of a Ch’Hanis pirate and smuggler, there are many more out there,” Triconatus suggested dismissively.
“Except that this one knows about us,” Flivius reminded him.
Triconatus snorted. “Knows what? That we have talked of our dissatisfaction with the current regime? That is not a crime.”
Ilarius was a little more concerned, since he wasn’t sure exactly how much the Ch’Hanis knew about his role on Thenatrix.
“It might be for the best if he was quietly removed from the planet,” the Regent suggested.
Or if the Security Bureau got too close, just plain removed, he decided ruthlessly. Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 4th January 2001 (Earth Date)
It was late, but the news was still focused almost exclusively – and understandably – on the attempt on Drayana’s life. SG-15 were still glued to the holo-imager, hoping against hope that the next snippet of information would be good news. So far, the regular medical bulletins hadn’t offered a single crumb of comfort to the waiting Talluran people, however. Drayana remained in critical condition, on life-support.
Just as they would be on Earth, the news broadcasters were camped outside the Medical Clinic for the duration. The whole area was swarming with heavily-armed Imperial Guard in their battle armour, while large crowds – either well-wishers for the Empress or a lynch-mob waiting to lay their hands on Helia Tren – were being kept at a safe distance. A ring of armoured hovercraft and orbiting shuttles backed up the troops on the ground.
“At least a battalion. They’re taking security seriously,” Sato assessed.
“Horses and barn doors,” Logan retorted. “But all the troops in the world can’t stop a lone fanatic in a crowd, not if the target deliberately puts herself in the line of fire.”
The approaches to the Xicavvar Concordium Embassy were similarly heavily-guarded – and that crowd were most emphatically not well-wishers. Perhaps the news analysts didn’t mean to pour gasoline on the fire. Nevertheless, by spelling out the known links between Governor Pyriam, Acamos and Helia Tren, and supposed Xicavvar mercenaries on Thenatrix, they were doing exactly that. A whole range of political and well-known public figures had already appeared on the various news channels, with even those of normally moderate views calling for bloody and immediate vengeance.
As if to underpin the seriousness of the situation, footage of steadily increasing numbers of Talluran warships forming up close to Xicavvar space was periodically being shown, together with images of determined-looking reservists reporting to their depots across the Empire. There were definitely war drums in the background.
“And where were you when the galactic war started, daddy?” Sato muttered, summing up the growing tension.
“I only hope they can find that antidote soon. Not only because I don’t want Drayana to die, but also because I reckon she’s the only one who can stop this before it’s too late,” Logan shook his head.
“You think she would, even after someone’s tried to kill her?” Ashborne sounded dubious.
Logan had spent by far the most time with the Empress, including attending meetings between her and senior military staff. The SG-15 CO already, therefore, had a reasonable handle on how she might be expected to react.
“The Empress will hit back hard if need be, but only as a last resort. Hell, they attacked three of her planets and she would’ve had every right to hit them with everything. But she used just enough force to let them know the Tallurans weren’t joking, while still waiting for a full intel analysis. And even if the Xicavvar government are behind the whole thing? I can see her mounting some sort of limited response that’ll hurt, but won’t bring the whole galaxy down in flames,” the Colonel assessed hopefully.
“Here’s hoping,” Sato replied. “Visiting a different galaxy, enough stories to have drinks bought by the rest of the SGC for the rest of our fricking careers... Let’s hope we don’t get stuck in the middle of an all-out war.”
“Things go bad and we can’t get out of here? I could think of worse folks to fight alongside, Bill,” Logan opined. Medical Clinic, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 5th January 2001 (Earth Date)
It was the early hours of the morning when Helia Tren finally regained consciousness. Her leg and shoulder hurt abominably and, for a moment, the would-be assassin couldn’t remember where she was or, indeed, what had happened.
Then it all came rushing back to her. The attempt on Drayana’s life, the Empress breaking her leg and slicing off an arm. Tren had to give the upstart credit for her fighting spirit, but at least it had been to no avail. The last thing she remembered before losing consciousness was the Empress collapsing nearby. Her poison had done its work, even if it would take a few days to work properly. Given the rarity of the substance, she also doubted if the medical technicians or their analytical equipment would be able to identify its composition in time to produce an antidote.
Brain still partially fuddled with painkillers, she glanced over at her shoulder, expecting to see a bandaged and bloodied stump, only to be surprised to see they’d re-attached the limb. She experimentally wiggled her fingers, pleased to see that all was in working order.
“They put my arm back on...” Tren told no one in particular.
“More than I would have done, my young traitor,” a voice told her dryly.
She turned her head the other way, to see four strangers.
“Tharn Hyperius, Security Bureau Department of Counter-Intelligence. These two are from the Civic Patrol, to act as witnesses. And this?” the white-haired agent indicated Vesarian. “This is the commander of the Empress’ personal protection detail. As you can imagine, he is not very happy with you right at this moment.”
“I am sure he will recover from failing to do his duty,” Tren shot back, her head slowly clearing.
“Perhaps he will, but it is your future we are concerned with here. Such as it is...” Hyperius told her.
“You need not waste your breath. I know the penalty, even for tyrannicide...” Tren grunted.
Vesarian growled at that. “If the Empress were indeed a tyrant, your father would be in prison, or even dead. He has accepted that his punishment was a just one – more lenient than he deserved – and he does not blame the Empress. Caelius Tren has honour, which is more than I can say for his spoiled children.”
“What happened to my brother?” Tren refused to rise to the bait.
“Dead. At least he will not suffer the ignominy of a treason trial and public execution,” Hyperius informed her coldly.
The prisoner gasped. “You murdered him!”
“Your brother was killed during the assassination attempt, by one of Her Excellency’s guards,” the Security Bureau interrogator corrected.
“Your fate is already sealed. Caught in the act of attempting to murder the Empress, there is only one sentence. Her Excellency may choose a more merciful means of death than the prescribed penalty, but that is obviously dependent on her surviving – and on your cooperation,” Hyperion continued.
Vesarian was pretty sure that Drayana, if she came through this, would be desperately seeking an alternative to signing death warrants for Tren, Pyriam and others taken on Thenatrix. There was, however, no alternative available in law. Each defendant would be rigorously assessed, by independent experts, for any sign of mental illness. That was the only mitigating factor in a treason trial, else all roads led to the condemned cells, which hadn’t been used for centuries.
Hyperius’ eyes narrowed. “I am asking you one thing right now. Your answer will mean the difference between a lingering, painful death by evisceration... Or an axe to the neck, or maybe a plasma bolt to the back of the head.”
He paused. “What poison did you use?”
Tren laughed coldly. “Do what you will with me. If that is the price of ensuring Drayana’s death, then I will gladly pay it!”
“Are you willing to make your whole family pay? Father, mother, and older sister?” Hyperius asked.
The woman stiffened. “They had no part of this.”
The interrogator smiled coldly. “I well am aware of that. Unfortunately, the justices may find it more difficult to believe that you acted alone. After all, your father had motive...”
He turned to Vesarian. “Would you care to show her?”
The Imperial Guard nodded grimly and switched on a view-screen on the wall. “Your parents and sister were arrested earlier today and have been brought to Tallura Prime to face charges...”
The image showed a downcast Caelius Tren, together with his wife Crespia and daughter Thelia, being led in chains towards an Astria Porta by members of the Imperial Guard.
“No! They have done nothing!” Tren shouted hoarsely.
In actual fact, her family were still safe at home on Sanopolis, a major colony world. The Security Bureau had been well aware that time was running out to find a cure for Drayana, and subterfuge seemed the best way to make the prisoner talk. No one believed that she’d otherwise lift a finger to save the Empress.
Stunned and utterly disgusted by the actions of their son, daughter and sister, the remaining members of the Tren family had, therefore, agreed to help in any way they could. This ruse had rapidly been assessed as the most likely means of loosening Helia Tren’s tongue. Her father, meanwhile, had already publicly disowned his son and younger daughter.
“It is your choice, Helia. You can carry on with your foolish vendetta and face the very real risk of a miscarriage of justice. In which case, there will be four of you on the scaffold, each screaming his or her life away in front of a baying mob, with you as the most guilty executed last of all... And your precious family name will be damned for all time. Or you can answer one simple question and the most likely outcome will be a sharp axe to your neck and a clean death,” Hyperius shrugged.
“So I will ask you once more, Helia... What poison did you apply to your blade and where did you obtain it?” the interrogator leaned in close, voice low and level.