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Key to the Stars

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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 > GeneralCordyfanFR1323281,0563128360,26114 Mar 116 Sep 14No

Blood Bonds and Blood Vengeance

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).

 

Ambassadorial Reception Room, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 10th January 2001 (Earth Date)

“That was not proper diplomatic protocol,” Drayana calmly reminded the Xicavvar Ambassador.

The creature was now flat on its back, arms and legs waving in the air, the Empress’ sword at its throat.  The insectoid, clearly incensed beyond diplomatic reason, had flung itself straight at her, mandibles open to bite and kill.  Drayana had simultaneously side-stepped and signalled to her Imperial Guard not to open fire.  It was better that the Xicavvar survive to learn a lesson from this.

“I would suggest a different negotiating tactic,” the Zaharte Ambassador suggested in the usual monotone, from inside his cloak.

With three colony worlds and Xicammar effectively blasted back to a pre-industrial era, Aqqabaz now free, and the Xicavvar Fleet halved in strength, the insectoids were understandably ready to sue for peace.  They were probably especially dismayed that the Zaharte had failed to come to their aid.  Now their ally, plus the Ch’Hanis and Triannite Ambassadors and a representative from Aqqabaz, were present to witness the signing of an armistice agreement. 

Lam had also been included in the gathering, Drayana suggesting that it might be an interesting angle from a psychological perspective.  For her part, the psychiatrist was pretty certain that peace talks back on Earth didn’t usually include a physical confrontation between the two main participants.

“Given your response, Ambassador, I am not entirely sure that you want peace.  I can, if necessary, release the Imperial Fleet from its holding patterns once more...” the Empress threatened, sheathing her sword and stepping back as the insectoid scrambled to its feet.

“That would not be advisable,” the Zaharte returned quickly.

“You will recall that an assassination attempt on a Head of State constitutes an act of war, Ambassador.  As we can all bear witness...” the Triannite Ambassador confirmed.

His species were four-eyed, quadruped marsupials, bright orange in colour and about the size of a small pony.  They were also the Tallurans’ oldest allies in this region of space.

The Ch’Hanis nodded and leered unpleasantly. “I would agree with my esteemed colleague.  An apology would seem to be in order.”

Support from a Ch’Hanis was very hard to stomach for Drayana, but it was nevertheless welcome right now.  The Zaharte couldn’t be sure which way – if any – the reptilians would jump in a wider conflict, so they’d continue to be less than wholehearted as allies of the Xicavvar.

“My most sincere apologies,” the Xicavvar chittered, Drayana almost choking on the term “sincere”. “My emotions were not under sufficient control.”

The Empress nodded curtly. “Apology accepted.  Now if you are agreeable to the terms of the armistice, I can begin a phased withdrawal of my forces from your space, beginning in three hours and completed by this time tomorrow.  Aqqabaz and its surrounding territory will be restored, as per the situation prior to your invasion and occupation.  A demilitarised zone will also be created – its dimensions to be negotiated - with the required territory to be ceded from the Xicavvar side of the frontier.”

The Xicavvar turned an angry shade of purple, just as had been the case before it attacked. “That is wholly unacceptable...”

“It is also non-negotiable.  You already owe the Aqqabaz reparations for years of exploitation, though that is a question for another day.  But the Aqqabaz are now – and forever – under our protection.  If you choose to reject this, then there will be no armistice,” Drayana moved onto the attack, a representative of the Aqqabaz – effectively a different line of hominid from either the Tallurans or Terrans – nodding his appreciation.

It was the least she could do, given Ilarius’ betrayal.  Incredibly, the Aqqabaz seemed completely sanguine about the whole affair, but Drayana was already planning to offer a large-scale programme of economic assistance.

The Xicavvar’s antennae drooped in surrender. “Very well.  I have the authority to agree to the proposed terms of the Armistice.”

“Excellent.  Now if your Excellency and my Ambassadorial colleagues would step over to this table, we can bring this unpleasantness to an end...” Proconsul Bruccian already had the Instruments of Armistice prepared on data pads.

“Unpleasantness” was an incredible understatement, the Empress reflected sourly.  This short-lived conflict had caused perhaps forty-five thousand Talluran deaths, the bulk of them on Thenatrix Secundus and Tertius, where the Xicavvar had simply wiped out the population in its entirety.  These were recently settled colonies, with relatively small populations on a planetary scale, unlike those of the Xicavvar.  The Imperial Fleet’s counter-strike, according to early estimates, had killed the best part of eight hundred thousand Xicavvar, and the death toll would almost certainly rise to much higher levels, given the complete collapse of infrastructure on each targeted planet.  All in all, this was a victory that tasted bitter in her mouth.

Drayana had two more official – or semi-official - tasks today.  One promised to be equally unpleasant, albeit in a different way, the other thoroughly enjoyable.  Then she’d have to spend the afternoon in class.  Fortunately she’d had more than adequate reasons for her absence over the last week and more, else Myrnn’s rod would have been getting a good workout.

“If only our wars – and peace agreements – could be dealt with so swiftly back at home,” Lam suggested fifteen minutes later, as the assorted aliens were escorted from the room.

The Empress had indicated that the psychiatrist should remain behind, while also dismissing her guards, leaving them alone in the room.

“I would like to ask for your professional assistance...” Drayana began awkwardly.

Lam was somewhat taken aback. “You mean, in my capacity as a psychiatrist?  I would have thought you’d have access to all the specialists you ever needed.”

Not to mention that, in her opinion – and even leaving her youth aside – Drayana was an extremely well-balanced and emotionally stable individual.

“I have been subjected to the scrutiny of a whole team of therapists ever since I could answer their questions, Doctor.  It also means that I can always basically predict what they will tell me,” the Empress snorted.

“If you call me “Carolyn”, then I’m sure there’ll be no problem.  So what d’you want to talk about?” Lam had a pretty good idea already, of course.

Drayana exhaled. “What do you think, Carolyn?  It is not every day that my orders result in eight hundred thousand dead...”

“If I may, Empress...” the psychiatrist began.

“Drayana.  Familiarity must work both ways,” the Empress smiled.

“Drayana, it’s only two days since your war began – and effectively finished.  So I’m not sure that it isn’t too early, especially since your feelings may not be certain on this.”

She’d already given the same advice to Faith, who was now having a minor attack of conscience about killing Acamos Tren.  Admittedly, the Empress’ issues were on a wholly different scale.

“Certain enough that I am feeling guilty, Carolyn.  I have an hour before my next appointment.  Can we at least make a start?” there was almost a beseeching note to her voice.

The psychiatrist decided it couldn’t do any harm, though she’d only begin to touch the surface in an hour.

“First I want you to relax, Drayana.  Just sit down, close your eyes and think happy thoughts for a few minutes...” Lam directed gently.

 

Fen Ilarius’ Estate, Outside Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 10th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Regent Ilarius moodily wandered through his garden’s carefully cultivated and neatly arranged flower beds, wondering what in the Fifteen Hells her Imperial Brat-ship was up to right now. 

He’d been feeling left out of decisions lately, basically because the Empress was increasingly and pointedly making less use of the Imperial Advisory Council.  The constitution only said that she had to have an Advisory Council until she came of age, however, and to consult with them on matters of state either proactively or retroactively.  Recently, Drayana had taken to working directly with the Proconsulate, without waiting for the Council’s input, and only informing them afterwards.

That would be rather alarming for the greater part of the population if the Empress was doing a bad job, or the Proconsulate was incompetent.  But even Ilarius had to admit that she hadn’t put a foot wrong during the recent crisis.  The former Regent had to admit that he’d also been caught completely by surprise.  He’d attempted to foment a minor crisis on Thenatrix, just to test her mettle, but corrupt local interests – and especially alien forces – had turned his experiment into a full-blown emergency and even a minor war.  Nevertheless, and contrary to the beliefs of many in his circle, Drayana hadn’t wavered in the slightest, even after a nearly-successful assassination attempt.

Only hours before, the Empress had concluded an armistice agreement that would leave the Xicavvar hobbled for years to come and the Zaharte utterly isolated.  Even the Ch’Hanis had agreed to mutual measures to reduce tensions, though that was probably just a matter of temporary expedience.  Diplomatically, economically and militarily, the Talluran Empire hadn’t been in a stronger position for a long time.

Ilarius angrily reminded himself that he was coming perilously close to admiring the young upstart.  Drayana might be creating a strong Empire, but he wanted an even stronger one, unchallenged in this region of space – and with himself firmly at the helm.  His foolish co-conspirators might miss the opportunity to enrich themselves beyond already considerable means, something that was denied to them following their dismissal.  Ilarius, however, didn’t care about increasing his financial holdings.  What he missed was power and the ability to wield it.  The Regent found it infinitely more addictive than mere riches.

In any case, he and his fellow plotters had more than the relative merits of power versus wealth to worry about.  Top of his list was the embryonic agreement between the Ch’Hanis Freehold and the Talluran Empire.  Central to the proposed arrangement was drastically improved security cooperation against the mutual threat posed by pirates.  If the Ch’Hanis acted according to form, within a day or two they would make a few gestures in that direction, just to prove their alleged sincerity.  Such gestures might include taking out a few pirate ships, or – and probably an easier option - even handing over a locally based pirate and smuggler.  Someone like Jugrub.

Ilarius’ Ch’Hanis ally was almost certainly known to intelligence staff based at their Embassy in Yaherin Var.  Jugrub had covertly worked for them in the past, but he’d fallen out of favour with the Ch’Hanis authorities in recent years, probably due to his habit of raiding their own shipping lanes, as well as those of rivals, without discrimination.  Having such an individual running loose on Tallura Prime was likely to be embarrassing to the reptilians at this time, so it was highly probable they’d try to dispose of him.  Sending in an assassin was one option, but that wouldn’t score the Ch’Hanis any diplomatic points with the Tallurans.  Turning him over to the Security Bureau, on the other hand, was a good way of demonstrating their supposed good intentions.

That was the core of the problem for Ilarius and his fellow Talluran conspirators.  If Jugrub was arrested, he’d most likely seek to bring them all down with him.  Not that they’d actually done anything illegal so far that Jugrub actually knew about.  Some of the others might suspect Ilarius’ involvement in the Thenatrix famine, but he’d covered his tracks very thoroughly indeed.  Nevertheless, even unsubstantiated allegations from the pirate would only serve to turn the unwelcome eyes of the Security Bureau on them all.  And the Empress would almost certainly encourage an investigation, given that her contempt for the Regent was hardly concealed at times.

He could, of course, be very wrong in his assessment of likely Ch’Hanis intentions.  But right now, Jugrub was a liability – and one easily replaced.  Ilarius also knew his fellow plotters probably didn’t have the stomach to have him eliminated.  The Regent, however, was made of much sterner stuff.  And he knew exactly who’d be only too happy to dispose of the reptilian, given sufficient cause.

The Hand of Purity was a tiny, if extreme, political element within Talluran society.  The movement’s members preached an extreme isolationist dogma, hating all alien species with a fanatic’s fervour, whether they were allies of the Tallurans or not.  Ilarius secretly shared many of their views, though he was much less vocal in expressing them.

Thus far, the Hand had been all rhetoric and no action, but the Regent knew just how to provoke some of their more hot-headed members into action.  The Hand was devoted to the preservation of the Talluran Empire, including – naively in Ilarius’ opinion - its monarchy.  Even treaties with alien species, such as that about to be signed with the Ch’Hanis, would simply be ascribed either to alien trickery or, more often, a clever use of expediency by the ruling monarch.  If someone was to demonstrate proof that an alien, currently living within Talluran space, was involved in the plot to assassinate Drayana – and that lack of evidence was presenting his arrest – then some outraged members of the Hand of Purity would almost certainly turn vigilante in an instant.

Ilarius chuckled to himself.  The standard of proof needn’t be too high, as the Hand tended to see alien conspiracies everywhere.  A few hours’ work, then a discreet handover of the “evidence” to his contact within the Hand – ensuring that they never met directly, of course – and Jugrub would be dead by nightfall.

 

Imperial Guard Shooting Range, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 11th January 2001 (Earth Date)

“Your shooting’s definitely improving, Joyce,” Logan offered, watching as at least half her rounds struck vital areas of the target.

“Now we need to work on speed.  You need to shave some time off drawing that sidearm and putting rounds on target,” he advised.

It was one thing hitting a metal target on a shooting range, with all the time in the world to aim.  A real-life threat, on the other hand, could materialise in an instant and the attacker always had a relative advantage.  Joyce knew she wasn’t about to turn into the equal of SG-15 or the Imperial Guard, certainly not overnight and probably not even with years of training under her belt.  On the other hand, Dawn’s encounter with the Ch’Hanis and the attempt on Drayana’s life had clearly demonstrated that, even with skilled bodyguard protection, there was still danger out there.  Her little girl had been threatened once already and Joyce wasn’t prepared to stand back and watch it happen again.

“Maybe a little more time on the unarmed combat first,” Lieutenant Paul Henriksson, fifth and most junior member of SG-15, suggested.

So far, SG-15 had mainly concentrated on teaching Joyce how to use weapons.  It was, from their perspective, easier than instructing her in unarmed combat techniques to any useful degree.  Not that any of the Terrans, Faith aside, would have a snowball’s chance in Hell going hand-to-hand against something like a Ch’Hanis.  Nonetheless, it hadn’t been fearsome alien predators who’d tried to kill Drayana.

“Guess that’s where I join the party,” Faith suggested from one side.

The Slayer had spent most of the morning staring morosely into the middle distance.  She had too much time to think right now, just like in prison, plus a distinct lack of opportunity to work off her inner Slayer’s restless energy.  Acting as Drayana’s bodyguard had helped in that regard – at least until she’d been forced to kill someone – but Faith needed something else to take the edge off.  Perhaps helping to train join Joyce might be just what the doctor ordered.  Quite literally, as Lam had suggested she find an outlet for her excess energy.

Joyce turned to SG-15. “No offence, but if I’m going to learn to – uh – kick butt, I might as well be taught by the best.”

“Buffy isn’t here, Joyce,” Faith offered wryly.

“Both Slayers aren’t you?” the other woman pointed out.

“Yeah...” Faith sucked her teeth. “Thing is, all Slayers ain’t equal, Joyce.  B and me?  We got the same strength, speed, reflexes and shit.  But she’s been Slayer longer than me, done a Helluva lot more against way more dangerous demons and...”

“And what?” Joyce asked in puzzlement.

The Slayer shuffled her feet awkwardly, obviously wishing she hadn’t started this.

“Me and B are pretty much equal on the training mat, Joyce.  But we’ve fought for real – Hell, pretty much to the death – more than once.  And when B’s fighting for her life, that extra skill and experience – and a little something else, maybe – means she kicks my ass every time.  Shit, I’m lucky to be here!” Faith admitted ruefully.

It wasn’t just a matter of more experience, though Faith had admittedly spent much of her time as Slayer either in a coma or prison.  Buffy also seemingly had a better-developed killer instinct when her back was against the wall, but that wasn’t something Faith really wanted to tell the blonde Slayer’s mother.  Faith also once heard Giles and Wesley discussing how Buffy had very rapidly grown stronger and faster after being killed by the Master.  Perhaps not by orders of magnitude, but certainly enough to be noticed by her Watcher.  Giles had also admitted that it was only an observation and difficult to measure, but his theory helped Faith’s ego no end, as she’d frequently reminded herself while in jail.

The Slayer shrugged inwardly.  Her ego didn’t matter a damn and, what was more, Buffy didn’t seem at all fazed by their minor differences in ability.  The past could take a flying fuck, so far as Faith was concerned.  She was trying hard only to be concerned with the future nowadays.

Joyce visibly winced, clearly not liking the idea of Faith and her daughter engaged in a fight to the death.

She shook that image from her mind. “I don’t have to be trained to fight the sorts of monsters Slayers regularly face, Diana.  Nor am I about to challenge a Ch’Hanis to a bare-knuckle match...  But I’d appreciate it if you could show me how to defend myself – and my daughter – against more manageable threats.”

Faith nodded and smiled thinly. “Guess I can do that.  So let’s see what you’ve got, Joyce...  Punch me in the face, hard as you can.”

The other woman seemed taken aback. “I...  Uh...”

“Don’t screw around, Joyce.  Just smack me in the fricking mouth, dammit!” Faith growled. “I promise it won’t hurt me any more than Little D could!”

It would, the Slayer guessed, quite possibly hurt less.  Dawn had been practicing quite a lot during the voyage here and didn’t seem to have her mother’s natural tendency to hold back.  Faith reluctantly decided she’d have to deal with that particular tendency very quickly.  And unfortunately it wouldn’t be pleasant for the woman.

Joyce gulped, brought back her arm, and threw a half-hearted punch.  A fraction of a second later, she was flat on her back on the ground, with the breath knocked out of her, bruises appearing in several places, and Faith looming over her.

“Okaaayyy....  Guess that needs some work, Joyce,” the Slayer drawled, helping her to her feet.

“Let’s see what you’ve got against a non-Slayer,” she suggested, gesturing to Sato.

“You’re walking home from work and the good Captain here’s actin’ like a typical man – led by his dick...  He wants to – uh...  What’s the word?  Impugn?  Impugn your honour, Joyce.  What d’you do about it?” Faith grinned at her, as the SG-15 CO took up position.

“This?” Joyce’s leg arched up and her foot caught the Captain hard between his legs.

Sato promptly collapsed in a heap, gasping and clutching at his manhood.

“Uh, I don’t reckon the fricking bout had started yet, Joyce.  He wasn’t ready for you...” a sniggering Faith pointed out, clearly lacking sympathy for the fallen officer.

“Oh God!  I’m sorry!” a mortified Joyce clapped a hand to her mouth.

 

Drayana’s Personal Chambers, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 11th January 2001 (Earth Date)

This was a family matter, at least partially, and that made it all the more difficult.  Dealing with a room full of hungry Ch’Hanis might actually have been preferable.  On the other hand, she could at least scream at this distant cousin - maybe even hurl a few solid objects at his head - without committing a serious breach of protocol.

“You are probably – no, definitely - the most selfish individual I have ever encountered!” the Empress snarled at her distant cousin.

“I am simply not a slave to duty, or this anachronistic form of rule.  That does not make me selfish,” Septimus Antonian shot back.

“The system has served our people well for our recorded history,” Drayana growled.

Antonian snorted. “Perhaps in the history you have been force-fed by that old fool, Arius Myrnn...”

“He is a decent man and you will not call him that in my presence, cousin!” the Empress responded hotly.

“And whatever the version of history, you are the first to abdicate succession to the throne in six-hundred years,” she pointed out angrily.

Antonian smirked. “I have always been an individualist.  And it is within my right, under the Constitution.”

“An individualist?  You have always been a selfish and spoiled waste of resources.  Who has never completed a days’ work in your idle life – and obviously have no intention of doing so.  To think that your parents sacrificed their lives to save you from that shuttle crash...” Drayana retorted.

Her cousin, with a minimum of training for the role, was next in line for the throne.  Or had been up until that morning, when he submitted his intent to abdicate succession.  The student was too fond of his current life – and studying did not seem to be a major part of it.  His sexual antics, spendthrift and lazy ways, all of which were a steady source of gossip for certain classes of Talluran society, were also a constant embarrassment to Drayana.

“Let us just say that your little brush with an assassin was enough to completely change my mind.  I was almost dragged here by your Imperial Guard and forced into the throne...  Maybe it suits you – brainwashed through your childhood and even now – to spend your life looking over your shoulder, wondering when the next fanatic will make his move.  But it is most certainly not the life for me,” Antonian declared.

“So having enjoyed a carefree childhood – and now the generous stipend you receive as next in succession – you are quite happy to leave the responsibility to your sister.  Who is all of eight years old and will now require training?” the Empress tried to shame him into changing his mind.

A voice at the back of her mind was, however, also suggesting that he’d probably be an unmitigated disaster on the throne.

Antonian merely shrugged. “I have not seen her in some years, though I believe she is not entirely happy in her current situation.  Perhaps Sulvia will respond better to her Imperial training.  A nice little empty vessel, perfect for your needs...”

“If you were a brother worthy of the name, you would be caring for your sister, not chasing whores on a nightly basis.  You make me want to vomit!  And I suggest you get out of here now, before I do something I might regret, cousin!” Drayana, shocked at her cousin’s callousness, slapped him hard across the face.

Antonian rose to his feet, rubbing his cheek, and sneering. “From your rather emotional outburst, should I presume that my stipend will no longer be forthcoming?  Never mind, I still have the trust fund established by my father...”

The Empress’ reply had no place in royal protocol, or any kind of polite society.  Nor was her suggestion either physically possible, morally acceptable, or probably even legal, but she needed to get it off her chest.

“I gather our meeting is at an end, Excellency?” her cousin smiled sarcastically.

“Get out of my sight!” the Empress literally growled.

She picked up a vase and furiously hurled it in his general direction.  Antonian only just avoided the fragments, as it struck the door above his head and shattered.  He abruptly decided that discretion was the best part of valour and fled.

The Empress paused for a moment, counted to ten and took several deep breaths, then summoned her Imperial Guardian.  It wasn’t often that her rage showed, but when it did, then it was time to duck and cover.

“I take it the meeting did not go well?  I never was fond of that vase, actually...” Livia said lightly, surveying the broken shards on the floor.

Drayana certainly had a fiery temper, as her guardian well knew.  Usually, it was well-concealed from others – the Empress could be the very essence of diplomacy – but there was a certain line, beyond which it wasn’t a sensible idea to cross her.  On the other hand, she didn’t dare engage petulant mode with her guardian, either.

“He was lucky I was not wearing my sword!  Self-centred motherfucker!” Drayana growled, reverting to Terran insults.

Livia’s greying eyebrows climbed up her forehead. “Unless I hear a promise that you will not use such words again, we will both go to your room right now, and deal with it in the usual way...  And I should probably have a word with Diana Prince!”

“Sorry mother.  You have my word...” the Empress replied hastily.

“A word that is all too easily broken in the heat of the moment, I fear,” her guardian predicted.

Drayana ventured a smile. “This time, it was not Diana.  Doctor Lam is also capable of some – uh – exotic language...”

“Then her mother also needs to have words with her,” Livia responded firmly.

“But you obviously wanted me for a reason,” she added curiously.

“I would like Sulvia to live here, with us,” Drayana said flatly.

Livia was moderately surprised. “She has her own guardians.  And there is protocol for raising those in succession...”

“Septimus has just formally abdicated his place in the succession.  I think he has shown that protocol is not worth a fu...  Ah, not worth anything.  And my idle cousin has at least confirmed that she is not very happy living with her current guardians, something I have suspected for a while,” the Empress replied.

Protocol for raising and training heirs to the throne, at least when they weren’t from within exactly the same family unit, called for them to be separated and individually educated by different people.  As distant cousins, the rule certainly applied to raising Septimus and his sister away from the Empress, a situation further complicated by the fact that they were both parentless, just like Drayana.  Septimus had at least been seventeen years old at the time of their deaths and, with Drayana set to be the next Empress, he’d received only the most superficial of training. 

Sulvia was another matter.  The last few days had taught Drayana, if the Empress ever required the lesson, that she wasn’t immortal and needed a direct heir, ready to step into her shoes.  If she died tomorrow with her older cousin now out of the picture, there would be another period of Regency, though she could at least pre-select a suitable candidate this time.  Unfortunately, poor Sulvia would also have to be trained and, given that a light touch at a later point in life obviously wasn’t enough to inculcate Septimus with any sense of honour and duty, the young girl would need much more thorough instruction.  Even if she’d hopefully never have to use her training.

Fortunately, her Guardian and Tutor were both now much more amenable to a less rigorous approach.  Drayana certainly had her own ideas on ways of training an eight year old in the Imperial Way – and it had to include a very large element of fun.

“You do not suspect them of ill-treating her?” Livia frowned darkly – child abuse was rare within the Empire, but not entirely unknown.

“Not physically and probably not even deliberately emotionally.  When I have seen her, I always had the impression that Sulvia knew she was not her Guardians’ real child, compared to their own family.  Little things – the odd word or slight here and there, being made to feel that she was not a real part of the family - and the fact that her brother effectively abandoned her, even after he passed the age of adulthood, have probably made her unhappy.  But with no direct abuse, I had no power to change the arrangement – and Septimus did not care to,” Drayana explained regretfully.

“But with Septimus’ abdication, it is both within your power and your duty to intervene,” Livia told her firmly. “Sulvia is now the Princess-Imperial and the heir.  As such – and as her alleged brother has long-since abrogated any responsibility for her - she is legally your ward.”

The Empress’ eyes practically bugged out. “My ward?  Mother, I am not considered to be fully adult myself...”

Even given the degree of independence she exercised in Imperial duties, Drayana still felt that she wasn’t yet ready to look after herself.  In fact, the Empress’ recent near-death experience had suddenly made her yearn to be part of a real family, hence her approach to Joyce.

“There are some anomalies between Constitutional Law and Family Law.  The latter defines the difference between childhood and adulthood, but the former takes precedence in matters of state such as this,” Livia explained.

“Anomalies?” Drayana’s voice rose in alarm. “You could fly a Battleship through this hole...  It is a total crock of sh...”

“Drayana!  Language!” Livia warned her sharply, nipping the end of the sentence in the bud.

“Yes, mother,” the Empress replied meekly.

“She is now your ward in matters of training for rule and, as such, also in who you choose to raise her, Drayana.   I presume that would be Arius and I, assisted by you.  But the programme of training?  As Empress, that is for you to devise.  And can it be any harder than diplomacy?” Livia replied calmly.

“Much harder!  I do not know anything about eight year old children...” the Empress almost whined.

“It is not so long since you were one.  And you will not be alone,” her guardian assured her kindly.

Privately, she was cursing the feckless Septimus Antonian.  Not only had he placed an enormous weight on his little sister’s shoulders – and neglected her in a place she was unhappy – but he’d also added to Drayana’s huge burden.

“It would be even easier if you and Myrnn were married.  As you have been planning for some time...” Drayana suggested slyly.

“What...?  How...?” Livia spluttered.

The Empress smiled mischievously. “You are no more successful at hiding your plans and feelings than you are at concealing my gifts on Festival Days, mother.”

Her guardian sighed. “We were planning to wait a few more years, until you were officially an adult...”

“Why wait?  Will you both care for me any less if you are married?  Especially since it will obviously make you happy,” Drayana suggested.

“It is our duty to...” Livia began.

The Empress interrupted her. “To raise me?  You can still do that just as well with a marriage bracelet.  To prepare me for the throne?  I am now Empress, for better or worse, and must learn by hard experience.  Which does not mean that I am not prepared to listen.”

“If I have your blessing, I will put this to Arius,” Livia replied.

“You do not have to ask for my blessing, mother,” Drayana assured her.

“I would feel better with it,” her guardian responded.

The Empress paused. “In that case, you definitely have it.  Though there is one thing I would ask you to at least consider, in return...”

Livia blinked, wondering what Drayana could possibly want.

“I know I am rather old, but would you consider legally adopting me as your daughter?  And the same for Sulvia?  It would be nice to be able to call you mother and father properly,” the Empress suggested quietly.

In truth, Livia’s mothering instincts had long since made her want to do just that.  Political considerations had, unfortunately, made such a move out of the question in the past, as it would have led to accusations that they were trying to control the heir.  By now, however, Drayana had proved that she was no one’s puppet.

“We made so many mistakes raising you, Drayana...” Livia pointed out.

“You kept me safe, as far from Ilarius’ influence as you could.  And if you were too attached to the traditional methods?  You have at least recognised that and can avoid the worst errors – and help stop me from making mistakes – when Sulvia joins us,” Drayana replied.

Livia was suddenly near to tears and hugging the Empress close. “If that is what you want, my precious daughter, there is nothing I would like better...”

 

Jugrub’s Apartment, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 11th January 2001 (Earth Date)

There was, Jugrub reflected sourly, little that was worth eating on this planet.  Little, in any case, that he could obtain easily and legally.  A squalling Talluran infant, torn from its mother’s breast, was his ideal dinner.  Unfortunately, he had to make do with meat purchased from the market, taken from creatures killed at least several hours previously.  It was, to say the least, distasteful.  The Ch’Hanis liked their prey live and kicking, flavoured by the adrenalin flowing in its death throes.

Pausing outside his apartment, he realised something was wrong.  The Ch’Hanis were a hunting species, in evolutionary terms reliant on their senses functioning beyond those of most species in the region.  Smell was particularly key in locating prey.  And right now, something didn’t smell quite right about his apartment.  There were Tallurans inside, more than one of them.

That left two possibilities.  They were either assassins, or from the Security Bureau.  Jugrub was betting on the former, as he’d detected no trace of a Security Bureau tail earlier.  That gave him two choices.  He could melt away, to one of his other hideouts – one unlikely to have been compromised – or he could leave their lifeless bodies as a message to whoever had sent them.  The Ch’Hanis, moreover, had a pretty shrewd idea of who that might be.

The reptilian silently placed his market purchases on the floor and drew his gauss pistol.  Electrically operated, it fired dozens of small needles – each containing a tiny explosive filament – with each pull of the trigger.  As an added bonus, it was effectively silent.  In other words, an ideal weapon for stealthy close-range combat.

The Ch’Hanis wasted no time.  Moving incredibly fast for a creature of his bulk, he flung open and door and rushed inside, following his nose.  The would-be assassins were in the living room area, seated uncomfortably on a sofa designed for the Ch’Hanis physiognomy.  Two them were hurriedly rising to their feet even as his finger tightened twice on the trigger of his gauss pistol.  Dozens of explosive needles penetrated the skull of each, exploding inside the brain cavity.  The third was bringing his plasma pistol to bear when Jugrub pounced, jaws agape.  One bite and the Talluran’s throat and the lower part of his face were torn clean off. 

The Ch’Hanis reluctantly allowed the body to slip to the floor, savouring the taste of fresh blood.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have time to make a proper meal of his victims.  Now he had to pack his belongings and move on.  But at least he knew the identity of his attackers.  Civilian clothes and a pin in their lapels bearing the insignia of the Hand of Purity, a Talluran alien-hating organisation.  The attack might be a coincidence, but he didn’t believe in such things.  This had all the hallmarks of an Ilarius scheme, the Regent always avoiding dirtying his own hands.  Jugrub immediately decided that he’d have to return the favour, several times over.    

 

Audience Chamber, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 11th January 2001 (Earth Date)

“What d’you reckon the Empress wants?” Faith fidgeted uncomfortably outside the door.

“I have no idea, Diana.  But Her Excellency has a habit of summoning people, without warning them of the purpose,” Aquiliani acknowledged.

It was certainly no use asking the two inscrutable Imperial Guards on the door, she decided. 

Faith glared. “Yeah...  Well I’d kinda like to know why the Colonel was so damned determined I had to dress up in the fricking GI Joe suit.”

Logan had strongly suggested that she wear the HGC uniform, hinting that it was the Empress’s idea.  In the past, Faith Lehane would have invited them both to kiss her ass, but Diana Prince was trying hard to more amenable.  In any case, as a condition of her release, the Slayer had admittedly agreed to join the HGC for a number of years, so it was inevitable she would have to wear the uniform occasionally.  That, however, didn’t stop it from itching.

There were, surprisingly enough, two versions of the HGC uniform.  One, modelled on the SGC field pattern, was used for day-to-day use.  The other was for more formal occasions, along Class-A lines.  Faith couldn’t imagine when a Black Ops unit, such as the HGC, would ever use it but, on the other hand, the military didn’t have to make sense.  Not that she was military, but the uniform was standard issue for all HGC-attached personnel, including civilians.  She especially couldn’t quite get used to the midnight blue HGC beret.  Queen C might be happy in this sort of thing, but the Slayer couldn’t wait to change back to her usual jeans and leather jacket, or even the assorted – and surprisingly comfortable – Talluran clothing she’d collected.

“I am not particularly fond of my dress uniform, either,” Aquiliani pointed out. “And it is very prickly...”

The Imperial Guard dress rig of deep maroon-coloured tunic and trousers, adorned with gold braid, resembled something from the Napoleonic period, according to Joyce.

At that moment, Vesarian opened the heavy double-doors and ushered them both in.  There was a small group of people already gathered in the room.  Myrnn, Livia and a contingent from the Imperial Guard represented the Tallurans, while SG-15, Joyce, Lam and Dawn formed the Terran contingent.  All were loosely gathered down either side of the room, with the Empress standing at the far end.

“I do not like the look of this,” Aquiliani muttered under her breath.

“Join the club, sister,” Faith whispered back, glancing around the Audience Chamber.

This was a particularly ornate if not overly large room, its walls decorated in deep shades of red and silk-like wall-hangings, with delicately-carved marble pillars at intervals.  The carpet was probably the softest and deepest the Slayer had ever encountered.

“Please step forward.  The Empress has a small presentation to make,” Vesarian told them both.

The Slayer and Imperial Guard suddenly felt very small.  Neither particularly liked being in the limelight and, while there was only a relative handful of people in the room – and all known to both women – it still felt as though a hundred pairs of eyes were on them.

“Don’t you look like the proper little soldier?” Dawn sniggered from behind the Slayer.

“Button it, squirt!” Faith growled.

“Ooowww!” Joyce’s hand connected lightly with the back of her daughter’s head, the youngster only yelping for appearance’s sake.

Drayana ushered them forward. “For two fearsome warrior women, you are both entirely too retiring!  I will not, contrary to the opinions of my enemies, eat you alive...”

She smiled. “This ceremony would normally take place in a more public setting, such as the Chamber of Proconsuls, with a much larger audience.  Plus musicians, a guard of honour and all the trappings of State...  I was, however, assured by both Joyce and Centurion Vesarian that neither of you would appreciate so much attention.  So I merely invited a few of your friends and fellow Guard.”

“Thank you, Excellency,” Aquiliani acknowledged gratefully.

“Yeah.  Don’t like the whole crowd routine,” Faith agreed.

At one time, the Slayer didn’t care a whit about how much attention she attracted, or what people thought of her.  If there were guys around, Faith actually liked to be the centre of attention.

Prison had changed that, however.  In the Big House, it was best to be as unobtrusive as possible, if only for the sake of a quiet life from both the other inmates and the prison authorities.  Following her faked death, Faith also found herself in the midst of a clandestine world – the HGC, the SGC, and so forth – in addition to having a new identity.  Faith Lehane might have been brash and flamboyant in public and Lam would probably say that was a reaction to her terrible childhood experiences, though the Slayer neither knew nor cared if that was the case.  Diana Prince, on the other hand, was still spirited and took no crap from anyone, but it still seemed sensible to keep a fairly low profile.  Faith almost marvelled at that self-analysis – she’d rarely tried being sensible before.

An aide, carrying a plain wooden box, took his place at the Empress’ elbow.

“We will keep this as short and simple as possible, in that case.  Though I reserve the right to share this with everyone I know,” Drayana’s eyes twinkled.

“It is not often that I am given the opportunity to properly reward those who have performed great services for the Talluran Empire or myself.  Especially not when that service includes saving my life...” the Empress’ voice had a definite note of gratitude.

“Diana Prince and Centurion-Quintus Ephichara Aquiliani, it gives me great pleasure to award you both the Order of the Empress, for Conspicuous Service to the Talluran Empire and Monarchy,” she told them both, dropping into deeply-ingrained formal tones, taking a medal from the box and slipping it around the neck of each woman as she spoke.

The Order of the Empress was an eight-pointed gold star, edged in platinum, with a blue gem in the centre.  In Talluran script, the words “For Conspicuous Service” were etched into the medal.  It wasn’t the highest award in the Talluran Empire.  As on Earth, that was reserved for conspicuous gallantry at the risk of one’s own life.  Nevertheless, the Order ranked highly within the Empire’s overall hierarchy of awards.

Drayana was not, in any case, finished as yet.

The Empress cleared her throat and blinked a few times to stop herself from misting up.  She was suddenly feeling unaccountably emotional and, indeed, had been ever since the attempt on her life.

“Many of our most ancient customs traditions have been lost and forgotten over the years, or have fallen into disuse.  One of the oldest of these is the custom of Blood Bond Kindred,” Drayana paused.

“According to this law, an individual who saves another’s life is entitled to the protection and support of those they have saved, for the rest of their own lives.  You effectively become family.  It has admittedly been many centuries since a Talluran monarch’s life was saved from violent attack – either in battle, or elsewhere.  In each instance, however, the individuals in question were recognised as having earned Blood Bond Kindred.  And I see no reason not to honour that tradition in this case,” she continued.

The Empress took both of Faith’s hands in her own and kissed her softly on the forehead, then repeated the process with Aquiliani.

“I hereby proclaim you both Blood Bond Kindred, to the end of your days.  Let it be known to all that neither time nor distance may weaken this bond,” Drayana solemnly repeated the aeons-old ritual words to the two flabbergasted women.

She smiled once again and turned to Aquiliani. “Of course, this does not mean that I will now be watching your back on a day-to-day basis, Centurion...”

“It would never be any other way.  I am sworn to protect Your Excellency...” the Imperial Guard protested.

Drayana shook her head and chuckled. “Relax, Centurion.  It was a joke!”

It was, she admitted, a rather poor one.  The Imperial Guard, especially the elite Protective Division, never joked about duty.

The Empress smiled at Faith. “As for you, Diana.  We may soon be separated by thousands of light years and entire galaxies, but my promise holds.  If I can find a means of maintaining regular contact with you and my new Aunt and cousin, then I most certainly will.”

For once in her life, the Slayer couldn’t think of anything to say, other than a muted – if heartfelt – thank you.  Her own family hadn’t been worth a damn.  She didn’t know who her father was, while her so-called mother was best forgotten.  No one had ever offered her anything until recently, or certainly not without strings attached, which she’d later come to bitterly regret.  Then only recently, complete strangers – General Hammond and even an immensely powerful Empress – were prepared to give her their trust and friendship.  And, in the case of Drayana, even more.

The problem was, Faith still wasn’t entirely sure she deserved any of it.

“Are you alright, Diana?” Joyce ventured, sensing something was amiss with the Slayer.

“Five-by-five, Joyce...” Faith replied with a shrug, but lacking her usual breeziness.

Lam shot her a searching look and mentally added another topic for their next session.  After taking out Acamos Tren, the Slayer had been eager to talk again, at any rate, so they might as well address another issue.

 

The Roof, Imperial Palace, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 11th January 2001 (Earth Date)

As a people, the Tallurans were very much aware of their inter-stellar heritage and origins and liked to stargaze as a reminder.  The result was that even a city the size of Yaherin Var – probably around the size of LA – used much less street-lighting than those back on Earth and, moreover, minimising light pollution was actually taken very seriously.  Back home, the result might have been a mugger’s or vampire’s charter, but such crime was very rare of Tallura Prime, with the supernatural completely absent.

Dawn and her mother had certainly taken to watching the night skies.  The Vedda Galaxy star-scape was, of course, completely alien.  There were none of the familiar constellations from back home.  In fact, even the Milky Way was hidden behind a faint blur which, to the naked eye at any rate, was all that was visible of the Asgard’s Ida Galaxy.  The distances were difficult to take on board for an experienced astronomer, but really beyond imagination for Joyce and Dawn.

That, of course, didn’t stop them from enjoying the view of the night sky, and the Imperial Guard stationed up here had become used to the two Terrans spending time up here, before the younger one was sent to bed each night.

It was a pleasant way to end another surprising day, Joyce reflected.  This planet never had any shortage of those, of course, and while she might not have seen any more ancient cities today, or had some alien ancestry revealed to her, it was still far from a normal day.

On one level, it was slightly galling to realise that she was so unfit these days, even if Faith and SG-15 aimed to cure her of that very quickly.  On the other hand, as the unfortunate Sato had discovered to his cost, she could still disable a man the hard way.

Inevitably, it was Drayana who pulled a few of the largest surprises from her pocket, however.  Firstly, the awards and pledge of Blood Bond Kindred to Faith and Aquiliani.  Secondly, a surprise announcement that Arius Myrnn and Livia intended to marry, adopting Drayana in the process.  Thirdly, the heir to the throne – a  mere child – was to arrive within the next week, to live in the Imperial Palace as the Empress’ official Ward.  Fourthly, they were all invited to the annual Imperial Gathering, a combined ball and banquet, with Drayana promising to send a dressmaker and tailor to measure all the Terrans for suitable formal wear.  And “Suitable”, Joyce guessed from Drayana’s description of the event, wouldn’t be out of place in a production of Cinderella.

Dawn, needless to say, was delightedly awaiting the chance to dress up as a fairytale princess for the night, but Faith had inevitably disliked the idea intensely.  She didn’t do dresses and formal wear.  In fact, she’d only worn a dress twice in her life, when General Hammond took her for dinner in Colorado Springs.  Admittedly, the Slayer had quite enjoyed the experience, but that had just been with the kindly and dignified SGC CO in a restaurant.  Massive royal extravaganzas, full of brown-nosed sycophants, were something else.  Drayana had, however, assured her that a good proportion of the invitees this time were those who could demonstrate that they’d actually done something worthwhile for her people.  Faith had ultimately acquiesced, however, especially as a grinning Empress assured her that there would be a surfeit of unattached men at the event.  Carolyn Lam’s and Joyce’s ears had also pricked up at that point.

“Shooting star...” Dawn snuggled into her mother, pointing at a sudden streak of light.

“Or it could be a space-ship,” Joyce pointed out – the two looked very similar to the untrained eye.

“Mom?  Isn’t that a really cool thing Drayana’s doing for her little cousin?” the youngest Summers said quietly.

Joyce smiled.  She’d been afraid that Dawn might be jealous of a rival for the Empress’ friendship, even an eight-year-old one.  Of course, she reminded herself, that could happen yet – though apparently Drayana had her own ideas for cousin Dawn’s role.  And, indeed, Aunt Joyce’s.

“I don’t think Drayana could have done any differently, dear.  Even if she hadn’t wanted to...” Joyce allowed. “But of course she wants to give the poor thing a decent home.”

In Joyce’s opinion, at least a small part of the Empress was also a frightened little girl right now.  Outwardly, Drayana might be carrying on as normal and with her usual Imperial efficiency.  Inwardly, at age sixteen and finding herself the target of assassins, she was probably terrified and all too aware of her own mortality.  One consequence appeared to be some kind of deep-seated need to gather her family close and, moreover, expand it as much as possible, almost as a living comfort blanket. 

Joyce snorted to herself.  It was probably best if she left the psycho-analysis to Carolyn Lam.  Regardless of the catalyst, however, as far as Joyce was concerned, a stronger feeling of family could only be good for the young Empress.

“Mom?” her daughter piped up again.

“Yes honey?” Joyce had the feeling that Dawn was leading up to something.

The youngster paused. “What Drayana’s doing...  It’s kinda like adoption, isn’t it?”

“More complicated, but I suppose it is,” her mother replied, wondering where this was going.

Dawn nodded. “I’ve been thinking...  You know how Cordy’s my half-sister?  And she really doesn’t like her folks?”

“Yes, dear...” Joyce replied slowly.

“She’s part of the family now – you’ve said it a whole heap of times.  So why can’t you adopt her?  So that she really feels like one of us...” Dawn suggested.

“Cordy’s an adult, Dawn.  It’s a little different from adopting a child,” Joyce explained.

Clearly, her daughter had also been bitten by Drayana’s family-building bug.

There was a moment’s silence. “So can’t you adopt an adult, then?”

Joyce considered that question for a moment.  She recalled once reading a magazine article on the subject.  Adult adoption was relatively rare, but most US states allowed it, and it was certainly an undeniably easier process than with minors.  Usually, it happened where both parties wanted a long-established relationship to be formalised, or when one was incapable of caring for his or herself, but there was certainly nothing to stop someone like Cordelia from being adopted.  At her age, of course, the biological parents had no say in the matter.

“I believe you can, honey.  Would you like me to ask Cordelia?  We’d have to discuss it with Buffy, too – and Cordelia might say no...” Joyce warned.

In truth, she couldn’t think of any rational reason why the brunette Slayer would refuse, but such things were always sensitive.  On the Summers side, Buffy and Dawn already regarded Cordelia as a sister, while Joyce was increasingly hard put to think of her as anything other than a daughter.

She decided it couldn’t do any harm to quietly and delicately broach the subject with Cordelia.  If she agreed, it wouldn’t be a drawn-out and complex process, and would have real benefits for all involved.

“It’d be really neat to have another big sister...” Dawn grinned.

“You and Buffy already argue enough, young lady,” Joyce pointed out.

Her youngest snorted. “That’s just what sisters do – doesn’t mean anything...”

“Usually,” Joyce pointed out, recalling a few occasions when sibling relations had been somewhat strained.

“Cordy’s just like Buffy – or Buffy’s just like Cordy - anyway. ‘Specially since she got her Slayer thing.  Used to be different, but not now,” Dawn offered sagely.

Joyce laughed. “I wouldn’t say that to either of them, honey.  They like to think they’re totally different – even if they’re not so much anymore!”

She couldn’t disagree with her daughter.  As the two Slayers matured in outlook – and especially since Cordelia discovered that she was also Chosen, even if somewhat underpowered by Slayer standards – they’d not only grown together, but also more alike.

“You know, it’s pretty weird.  I mean, we all have the same dad, but only Buffy really looks like either of you.  And Cordy and I look more like sisters, if you saw us together...  Stuff we did in science – the sex-ed “where babies come from” lessons that made you go all red and stammery when I asked you ‘bout it...”  Dawn snickered.

“That’s enough of that, missy!” Joyce waved a finger at her.

“Yeah...  Well, the teacher said that most kids look like either their mom or dad,” her daughter answered thoughtfully.

This line of questioning was making Joyce nervous.  Sometimes Dawn was just too perceptive for comfort.  However much she tried to bury the knowledge, her youngest was supposedly made from Buffy and Cordelia, with her appearance obviously drawn in part from the latter.

“It’s a coincidence, honey.  Cordelia looks like her mother.  And I think your father has some dark-haired relatives on his side of the family.  These things can often jump a few generations,” she explained quickly, not really sure if there was anyone who looked even remotely like Dawn on Hank’s side.

Fortunately, and to her mother’s relief, Dawn seemed to take the explanation at face value.  She sighed contentedly at the thought of another sister to drive crazy and snuggled in even closer to Joyce.

“Oooohhh!  Space-ship,” the youngster decided, as another flash of light streaked off on exactly the same trajectory as the first.

 

Jugrub’s Apartment, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 12th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Tharn Hyperius stood to one side as the Security Bureau Special Action Force agents prepared to breach the door.  Ch’Hanis might be physically formidable, but his team were amongst the best in the Bureau.  Four SAF agents, clad in the same enclosing full-body armour used by the Imperial Guard and Imperial Defence Force, would be more than sufficient to temporarily incapacitate and detain one reptilian pirate and secure any evidence.

Hyperius’ team could have used explosives, but they were relying on a quieter approach.  At a signal from the Security Bureau senior operative, one of the SAF agents levelled a small pistol-like device at the lock and  squeezed the trigger.  The gas jet, cooled to levels not far above absolute zero, immediately and silently rendered the extra-tough alloy as brittle as glass.  The merest tap with a hammer and the lock simply dissolved into a crystalline powder.

The team cautiously made their way inside, Personal Combat Weapons levelled.  Hyperius, more of an investigator than a combat-trained operative, followed warily behind.  Having encountered no resistance so far, the SAF agents cleared the rooms one-by-one.  Clearly, the Ch’Hanis wasn’t home.  Judging by the paucity of personal belongings, he’d already made good his escape, probably warned by a sympathetic fellow-reptilian at the Ch’Hanis Embassy, Hyperius judged.

At that moment, one pair of SAF agents discovered two bodies in the kitchen, with another inside a closet.

“I would estimate they have been dead for at least a day,” one of the agents estimated, turning over a corpse.

This was somewhat unexpected.  Obviously, more than the Security Bureau were interested in Jugrub.  Forensics would have a very interesting time here, that much was certain.

Unfortunately, there was also a Ch’Hanis pirate on the loose, one who was clearly prepared to kill.  And given the information the Security Bureau had received from the reptilians, Jugrub was a highly resourceful and skilled individual, probably with a sound escape plan already figured out.

“That symbol?” Hyperius indicated a tiny pin on the dead Talluran’s jacket. “Hand of Purity.”

The Security Bureau kept a close watch on the Hand of Purity.  Up to now, the xenophobic bigots had kept a fairly low profile and, in spite of their intolerant rhetoric, the movement hadn’t harmed a single alien on the planet.  To their own personal misfortune, several had obviously decided to raise the stakes by choosing a particularly dangerous target, both in terms of his species and – quite clearly – his personal abilities. 

The pirate was obviously more than a match for his would-be assassins or kidnappers – Hyperius was guessing that they were probably the former.  Two of the targets had been shot through the head, probably with a gauss-pistol at close-range, given the pattern of tiny wounds.  The third, as a SAF agent had just discovered to his stomach’s discomfort, had his throat ripped out and jaw bone half torn-off by Ch’Hanis fangs.

“A bomb!  Get out of here!” one of the agents suddenly yelled in warning, spotting a small device half-concealed in a body’s clothing, a light blinking at a rapidly increasing rate.

Disturbing one of the bodies had activated a tiny, but powerful explosive charge.  Jugrub had no intentions of leaving evidence behind.  And if his booby trap took some of the Talluran security forces with it, so much the better.

Hyperius and two of the SAF agents cleared the outer door and flung themselves flat on the landing floor.  The other two weren’t nearly so fortunate, as an explosive fireball tore them and the apartment to pieces.

 

Warehouse, Yaherin Var Imperial City, Tallura Prime – 12th January 2001 (Earth Date)

Jugrub smiled coldly to himself as he heard the blast from several blocks away.  Hopefully, the Security Bureau was now several agents lighter.  They certainly wouldn’t recover anything of value from the wrecked apartment.

Destroying his former home was a matter of some small regret.  It had been Jugrub’s favourite, even if he owned or leased a number of such properties in various cities on Tallura Prime and other planets within the Empire.  Each had been rented or purchased using a different alias, in some cases not even Ch’Hanis. 

Now, of course, he’d have to remain hidden for a while.  While he had a about a dozen Ch’Hanis aliases, only half known to Ilarius and his cronies or those in the Embassy, he was still Ch’Hanis and, therefore, somewhat conspicuous on this planet.  Still, if he lay low for a few weeks, he still had sufficient contacts – Ch’Hanis and otherwise – to smuggle him off this planet.  Not that he was under any illusions.  Political expediency had now made him embarrassing to his own government and the moment he left Tallura Prime, Ch’Hanis intelligence – and every bounty hunter in the Freehold – would be on his trail.  It wouldn’t matter one iota that the Freehold authorities had often found his services to be extremely useful in the past. 

Remaining on Tallura Prime, he faced the twin threats of the Security Bureau and Ilarius.  The former was by far the greater danger, of course.  If by some supremely unlikely chance the Bureau took him alive, he wouldn’t hesitate to implicate the Regent and all his friends.  And if Ilarius and the others sent anyone else after him, they’d end up just as dead as the first team.

Of course, there was also the small matter of payback.  Ch’Hanis were famed for never forgetting a vow of vengeance – and Jugrub made a threefold pledge to himself.  A threefold vow of Blood Vengeance.  Revenge against the cowardly Ch’Hanis officials who’d betrayed him to the Tallurans.  Revenge against Ilarius and his conspirators for sending those incompetents to kill him.  And revenge against the Tallurans and their precious Empress, for turning him into a fugitive.  Vengeance, however, would have to wait.  Still, he had plenty of time to plan.

 

 

 

 
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