The Scarlet Thread
by Wesley Williamson

Chapter One : The Palace

Chapter 1: The Palace Chapter 2: The Outfleet Chapter 3: The Trader
Chapter 4: Shift Space Chapter 5: The Imperial Fleet


Statesman of the last years of the Second Empire (the Rule of Grace). A favorite of the Dowager Empress Ta Haris A Sond, he was retained in the service of her brother, Solon Ka Haris, during the regency, and ennobled by him when he took the throne (2797). He had no formal position in the Houses, but it is accepted by most historians of the period that his influence was predominant in the Empire's policies from 2790, when he returned to Tios with the Empress from exile. There is some evidence indicating that he was, at the very least, involved in the overthrow of the Emperor, Solon, by the Humanist party, though he resigned from office when the new Emperor took the throne. It is suspected, largely on the basis of internal evidence, that despite his resignation, he may have been responsible for drafting the Act of Acceptance (2809) which returned the Interdicted worlds within the Empire, and led inevitably to its dissolution.

From 'Human Influences on Galactic Development during the Third Millennium,' the Biographical Index, Volume 12.

The Great Hall in the Palace at Tios, as was usual for an Autumn afternoon with the court in residence, was crowded with hangers-on, and gay with the brightest colors and the latest fashions.  K'Ateros, too old to be tantalized by semi-nudity and too preoccupied to be diverted by stupidity, brushed through greetings from both sexes on his way to the appointments' desk in the far corner of the Hall.

'Be with you.'  He stood high enough now to dispense with formality, even standing under the statues of the Grace that dominated the Hall.

'And the Power and the Grace be with you, my Lord,' said the young Fleet Lieutenant at the desk, rising deferentially.  'I will inform his Highness. The Tetrarch has not yet arrived.'

K 'Ateros grunted and walked to a window niche.  Below him, Tios stretched from the base of the low hills to the sea.  Only the tallest buildings in the old town still caught the light of the setting sun, while the luminous ribbons of the travelways pulsed slowly as they wound intricate patterns through the twilight below.  To the north, a staging tender fell gently from the yellow sky, to settle with a flurry of spinning rainbows into the evening mist already thick on the delta.  Tios was not the largest city in the Empire, nor the richest, but to K'Ateros it had a meaning that transcended statistics of wealth or population. 

He had come here as a young man to represent his agricultural world at the Assembly, awkward, unsure of himself, and very conscious of his provincial accent.  He smiled a little, reminiscently.  That, at least, he had kept over the years.  For the rest, Tios had swallowed him up.  He knew it and loved it from the dockside taverns to the upper travelways, from the alien ghettos on the delta to the noble estates sprawled over the hills.  Tios was to him a very potent symbol of the power and tradition, accumulated during a dynasty of twenty generations, that now ruled over nine planets in six systems.

'Grace with you, my lord.'

The light, faintly mocking voice interrupted his reverie and he turned.

'And with you, Lady,' he responded, bowing, purely from habit, a calculated fraction short of the prescribed depth.  He had been a courtier for a long time.  As he straightened he nodded curtly to the two splendid young men behind her.

'My compliments, Lady, a very striking ensemble.'

The Lady Lin Te Haris glanced back. 'Do you really think so, Ateros? I had thought, perhaps, a little overstated?'

'I had thought, Lady, that was your intention,' he said dryly.

She was dressed in what appeared at first glance to be a demure robe of black, sheenless fur. Only her face, hands and feet were bare, the robe ending at heavily jeweled borders.  But when she turned, it could be seen that the close-clinging material was formed of many distinct panels, whose edges at rest joined indistinguishably, but which the slightest movement separated to reveal, in momentary and challenging glimpses, a very white, very young body. Her companions, in deliberate contrast, were clothed with loosely hanging panels of bizarre shapes and contrasting colors, which repulsed each other so that any movement set them fluttering apart in an ever changing kaleidoscope.

K'Ateros had too close an acquaintance with the intrigues of the Priesthood to be a conventionally religious man.  Nevertheless he found, somewhat to his own surprise, that this deliberate, and admittedly effective, portrayal of one of the Church's most sacred images - the Three in Grace - left him uneasy.  He came, after all, from the Commonfolk, and childhood indoctrination is not easily discarded.  It was rare, nowadays, for young people to make a Three, though it was encouraged in the elite Scoutship Corps of the Fleet.  Even so, there was a vast distinction between that romantic tradition and this near parody; nor was it merely youthful dare-devilry.

Of the two men, Ka Sant was of the Blood, and the chosen Heir of a High House traditionally aligned with the Church.  He was, as K'Ateros knew, both intelligent and ambitious.  While a liaison with the Lady Lin had obvious attractions for a young man, it had even more obvious dangers.  It was more than unlikely that Ka Sant's heart had so overruled his head as to risk, by this masquerade with an Heir-Designate, the displeasure of both Church and Palace.  It was, thought K'Ateros, glancing at the hard, competent face, unbelievable.  In any event, he had the reputation of preferring his own sex.  Indeed, K'Ateros remembered seeing him with other such slim, handsome boys as this one now standing a little behind him.

'It would appear that you do not approve of the old customs, Lord Ateros,' said Ka Sant.  'I had thought that on Lama Raya and Olympa, at least, the Commonfolk were still properly schooled by their Houses, and you are from Lama Raya, are you not?'

His tone was as insolent as his words, and there was a stifled gasp from the boy in the background.  The Lady Lin's thick brows drew together in surprise, and she turned quickly towards him, but before she could speak, K'Ateros answered, his tone level, and directed as much to her as to Ka Sant.

'An affectation of the court I can tolerate, and if it amuses the Lady, why even approve.  But the old customs, I think, mean more to you, and to the Tetrarch, than a contrived and probably unsatisfactory sexual trio, however fancily dressed.'

The Lady Lin flushed to the roots of her sleek black hair, but stopped Ka Sant with a gesture as he moved forward angrily.  'Enough, Sant'A,' she said, 'leave me to speak to Lord Ateros.' 'In private,' she added and waved him impatiently away as he would have protested.  He shrugged and flung an arm around Ka Lar's shoulders as they went off, saying something in a low voice that provoked the youth's shrill laughter.

'At your service, Lady.'  There was a contemptuous twist to his mouth that brought the flush again to her high cheekbones.

'That was unworthy, and I am very angry with Ka Sant.  Nevertheless, you had no right to speak of me as you did.  You have known me since I was a child, do you think this pretense amuses me, me the First Lady of the First High House?  Do you think I have never read the books, that I do not know how it truly was with a Three in the old days, how it can be again, Ateros?'

She had dropped all her affectations, and for a moment he saw the long-dead Empress, when she and he were both young.  It softened his eyes as he replied 'I am sorry, A'Lin.' 

In her absorption she did not notice the affectionate diminutive. 'I have no real influence, except here in the Court.  These sheep will follow my lead, if the fashion be daring enough.  And the provincial Houses follow the fashions of the Court, eventually.  We all know that the Empire has reached a point of crisis.  Who knows what feather will overbalance the scales.  If we are to keep our Faith and our Empire we must return to the old ways that won them.  Do you understand K'Ateros?  What I can do I must, however trivial or - ' her voice stumbled '- or unworthy it may seem.' She moved closer, and put her glittering hand on his arm.  'Do you understand?'

K'Ateros was thinking furiously and on two levels of his mind.  He loved A'Lin and her brother, not only as children of the Empress, but for their own sake.  During the years of exile they had grown up under his care, almost as his own children.  That Tal'A and A'Lin were now Heirs-Designate, and had few memories of those days, was of little importance to him.  It was an intelligence report from his private agents in the Fleet, with which the Heir was serving, that had brought him by courier service from the borders, at a most inconvenient time.  Obviously A'Lin did not know of her brother's activities; K'Ateros hoped, and had taken precautions to ensure, that only he and his own agents did.  It was equally obvious that she was being used, but to what end was not clear.  He began to fit plans for her safety into those he had already made for her brother.  Deeper in his mind, he was already examining another possibility, and a choice he might be called upon to make. That he knew and accepted how he would choose appalled him.

'Lady,' he spoke with care, 'I do understand.  If I thought that your way, the Tetrarch's way, would keep the Empire safe, I would follow it at all costs.  Indeed, there may be no alternative. But believe this, Lady.  We may return to the old ways, the old days will never come back. That Empire is finished.'  He hesitated, watching her under his bushy white brows.  'I am waiting for audience with the Emperor.  I think it probable that a full Throne Council will be called very soon, and since your brother is with the Interdiction Fleet, you may attend as Heir Designate, although you are not yet of age.  Your metaphor of a feather on the scales was more apt than you knew: what the Emperor decides at this Council, as I think, may decide the fate not only of the Empire, but perhaps of our race.  It is right that you should know why.' He hesitated again. 'Your brother does not trust me, Lady, do you?'

She looked at him gravely. 'For myself, for my own person, yes. For the Empire, I think yes also.  But I am not sure that your Empire is the same as mine.'

He chuckled.  'I will only ask you to trust yourself to me, not your Empire.  Can you arrange to be alone tonight - or does that present a difficulty?'

She turned on him with blazing eyes, but he was smiling, and at last she smiled too, though reluctantly.  'I will be alone.  I needed Ka Sant for this, not for bed, and I would not have been sorry if I could have done without him for this.'

'That is as well' said K'Ateros reflectively, 'I am afraid that a fatal accident may shortly bring a new Heir to Maran-Sa.'  His expression was not pleasant.  'No, Lady, not on your account. But I have not remained a power in the Empire for all these years by permitting anyone, however high he stands, to insult me without feeling an itch between his shoulder blades.  Yes, Lieutenant?'  He was looking past her.

'The Emperor will see you now, my Lord. Lady.'  He bowed correctly, but his eyes widened involuntarily as she turned, and the full impact of her costume struck him.  Ka Sant and Ka Lars had moved back and were standing behind her in the shadow of the statues of the Grace as if posed deliberately.

The Lieutenant's shock and disapproval were so evident that the Lady Lin threw back her head and laughed aloud.  'I am not surprised that K'Ateros disapproves of me, but you too, Avenda?  And you an officer in my own regiment.'

Avenda looked at K'Ateros for help but he was grinning.  'Well, Lieutenant?'  He shook his head.  'And you an officer in her own regiment, too!'

The young man took a deep breath, wishing, not for the first time since his recent Palace appointment, that he were back with the Fleet, and said, stuttering only a little, 'It is not for the son of a small House to disapprove of you, Lady, and indeed if you were not niece to the Emperor, your beauty would still school my tongue.'  He was rather proud of that; he felt that the Lord Ateros himself could not have done better on the spur of the moment. 

The Lady Lin was still amused, but Ka Sant, who had moved close enough to hear, was obviously not.  He spoke with a side glance at Ateros. 'It would appear that some of our provincials have learned discretion, if not courtesy.'

Avenda was stung into speaking without thought.  'Why yes, my House is of Olympa, my Lord.  In the Provinces old customs linger, so why should I disapprove?  Our children still play a game like yours, though not in such pretty clothes.'

Ka Sant's face darkened as he took a step forward, and the Lieutenant's hand dropped instinctively to the hilt of his dress sword, but K'Ateros stepped between them and bowed over the Lady Lin's hand.  'We must not keep the lieutenant longer from his duties, nor must I keep the Emperor waiting. Lady. My Lords.'

He did not speak again until they were near the appointments desk, but still beyond the hearing of the two Marine guards behind it.  'I should have remembered you were from Olympa.'  He spoke musingly.  'Nevertheless, you are a very rash young man.'

'I am sorry, my Lord.'  T'Avenda was only too conscious of his rashness and its possible consequences.  'Only, well, I was one of a Three; you know how the Corps uses us beyond the Borders.  The - other two - I had to watch them die on a piddling world the Empire doesn't want and I'll never see again.  That mockery - '  His teeth ground audibly.  'When I remember how it really was with us - it turns my stomach.'

K'Ateros considered his woebegone face and laughed abruptly. 'No matter,' he said,  'In any event I wouldn't give a pin for your chances of living till morning.'  He spoke with relish.  'The Lord Sant might even condescend to cut your throat himself, pretty clothes and all.'  Still laughing, he swung away to the great bronze doors that led to the Emperor's private rooms.

As you are One
We are one
Who were three
Yet became one

Now she is dead
The Three is broken
A scarlet thread
For the lost one

Shall be the token
A knotted thread
That once was broken

From The Book of Ritual

T'Avenda hit the plate gasping, and the icy needles of water stopped with an indrawn gurgle, as a hot, spice-scented breeze stirred the curly brown hair on his head and his short, military beard.  He waited moodily until he was almost dry before squeezing out of the toilet cubicle, and taking the three paces that brought him to the opposite wall of the Palace apartment.  He had soon discovered that, for the allotment of accommodation, an honorary Lieutenant of the Guard ranked on the same level as the confectionery sub-chef, and far below the Assistants to the Deputy Keeper of the Records - one of whom had, incidentally, given a cold reception to the very reasonable excuse he had concocted for breaking their appointment that evening.

At first she had switched on the viewscreen for him, despite being at a very early stage of dressing, or a late one of undressing.  T'Avenda's groan, as he pulled clothes out of drawers with unnecessary violence, was as much regret for the comfortable bed that he had seen behind her, as for the expanse of pretty flesh, which had both disappeared abruptly from the screen when the reason for his call had finally dawned upon her.  Why K'Ateros should have picked on him to escort the Lady Lin secretly from the Palace he could not fathom. The Grace knew he had enough trouble after that bout with Ka Sant, the arrogant -. 

The Lieutenant's nostrils pinched.  If the two of them were naked at the water's edge, with short sword and dagger - but Ka Sant was of the blood and would not lower himself to offer a ritual challenge to the son of a small provincial House.  Avenda was a reasonable young man, and he knew he could not expect it.  On the other hand, he would never contemplate anything so unworthy as accepting help to kill an enemy, and he had a shrewd suspicion that while Ka Sant might very well cut his throat himself, he would be held pinioned like the Beast on the Altar while it was done.  When he came to think of it, he did not trust K'Ateros either, and if he had any sense he would have gone straight to the Guard Commander, and reported the whole incident.  He would have, too, no matter how high the Lord Ateros stood, if the Lady Lin had not been involved.  She was Heir-Designate and Commander of his Regiment, after all, however nominal that appointment might be.  She was also very young and very lovely.

Avenda shrugged.  Anyway he was committed now.  He opened another drawer and looked distastefully at the mini-pistol K'Ateros had told him would be left in his room.  The penalty for carrying projectile weapons outside the coastal defense zones was a quick death, with no excuses and no exceptions.  He balanced it gingerly in his hand, shrugged again, slipped it back into its holster and strapped it over his shoulder.  He pulled on a loose over-blouse, checked to see that the gun was hidden, and belted around his waist the wide silver-chased belt, with sword and dagger in their plain rokorskin scabbards, which was the inheritance of his House and the badge of his nobility.

He turned to leave, then hesitated and went over to the niche in the only uncluttered wall in the room, with the stylized representation of the Grace in low relief, and under Them the stepped Altar and the Cup.  On the step immediately below the Cup he had set on the left, as was customary, the amulet with the emblem of his House, and on the right his amulet of rank, with the Emperor's seal.  Between was a small translucent sphere, and lying around it a twisted loop of scarlet cord, broken and knotted again in two places.

Avenda bent and touched the sphere with the tips of his fingers.  Gradually the solidogram brightened to show three young people in the olive-green uniform of the Scoutship Corps.  With T'Avenda was a tall, gangling boy with hair and beard a flaming red, and between them a dark girl with dimples.  In the background the needle nose of a scoutship pierced the whipped tendrils of cloud streaked across a very dark, purple sky.  Avenda looked for a long moment, then touched the sphere again.  As it darkened, he lifted the Cup with both hands and kissed the rim, silently repeating the Ritual of Separation as he had done on the ship eight months before, watching helplessly while the other two died, screaming, outside.  Then he set the Cup back and went out of the room.

The living quarters of the Emperor and the Heirs-Designate were in the most ancient part of the Palace; what had been the stronghold of Haros and the House of the first Emperor, Haris bin Mata.  It stood on a sheer rock bluff protruding from the gently sloped hill on which the rest of the Palace was built.  Now most of the prehistoric caves and tunnels had been blocked, and the only access was by lift shafts in the heart of the bluff.  Avenda had been there only once before, when he took oath for his Palace secondment, but it made him uncomfortable.  Too much history, and too much legend, clung like a cold mist to the rough, black stone walls still left uncovered in many of the halls and corridors.

While the indoctrination of the lesser nobility was more subtle than that which pervaded the whole life, from birth to death, of the Commonfolk, it was in its way equally effective.  Avenda had been shown the small bleak room in the watchtower, where the Fisherman had written the Books and where the first Emperor's only son had died with his Three fighting to protect him. Although he had never seen a Sea-Beast unless drugged and helpless on the Altar - even on Tios, where occasional raids still kept the coastal defenses alert, comparatively few people had - yet standing on the threshold of that room, the hairs on the nape of his neck lifted, as a smell he almost remembered caught at the back of his throat.

He had no difficulty at the liftshafts, though the Lieutenant on duty in the ante-room lifted his eyebrows slightly when he saw him, and lifted them even higher when he found his name on the permitted list.  As he called the inner guardroom, he watched Avenda consideringly, if a little abstractedly, while he ran rapidly through the ladies-in-waiting in residence in the Old Palace, crossing off on his mental roster those too old or not sufficiently attractive or already otherwise occupied.  His eyes crossed slightly with the effort of concentration as he discovered he had eliminated all the reasonable candidates, but just then another thought diverted him.  He had casually waved Avenda on to the inner guardroom, but now cleared his throat loudly, and when Avenda turned, said 'Oh, just for the record, 'Venda, how long do you expect to be with her?'

'With who? What record? You'll know how long I'm going to be in when I come out, you little computer stuffer.'

T'Araki's eyes climbed up into his hair.  'Whew, you're in a fine romantic mood.  No, wait a minute, 'Venda.'  He hastily swung his boots from the scarred desk top with a vague idea that he would look more sincere with his feet on the floor.  'I'm off duty in half an hour, and I thought I might be able to do you a favor.'  His chubby face was ingenuous.  'If you're not able to be back in time to have supper with TeLana, I'd be glad to help you out.'  He smiled hopefully.

T'Avenda detailed with uninhibited frankness the reasons for his lack of success with Te Lana in particular and women in general, and was turning away from a deflated Lieutenant when a thought struck him.  Speaking casually he inquired, 'By the way, will the Lord Sant be in the Old Palace tonight?'

T'Araki shook his head quickly.  'No.'  He added in explanation of this unusual efficiency, 'I looked while I was checking for you.  His name isn't on the list.'

The Palace was, of course, a hot-bed of gossip, and T'Avenda was not too surprised that T'Araki already knew of his brush with Ka Sant, though it would have been a breach of etiquette for him to refer to it directly.  He was more concerned by another possibility that had only just occurred to him.  While a short time spent in the Old Palace in the early evening could have many explanations, and would arouse no comment, a full evening or a night spent there would eventually become common knowledge, and start in many minds the same speculation that had obviously preoccupied 'Raki just now.  Since there were a limited number of women in residence, it was at least within the bounds of possibility that all but the Lady Lin could be eliminated and that would be a rare tidbit for the Court, already humming over her daring appearance that afternoon.

Although the sexual mores of the nobility had long ago relaxed from their original rigidity, with at least the forbearance of the Church, the virginity of a female Heir-Designate was still a hallowed custom.  No doubt, like most of the old ways, it was nowadays more honored in the breach than in the observance.  However, while a suspected affair with Ka Sant would be tittered over but condoned, since he was of the blood and in any event a possible candidate as father of the next Heirs-Designate, one with someone of Avenda's rank would be a scandal that the Lady would be lucky to survive - the man most certainly would not.

By the time he reached the dimly lit gallery above the Common Hall, used only when a rare Throne Council was in session, T'Avenda was racking his brains for a possible solution.  He was too absorbed to notice, when the Lady Lin stepped from behind one of the huge deeply carved gallery pillars, that she was furious.

'Lady.'  He bowed perfunctorily.  'We must find some excuse for my being here.  We dare not risk the chance of gossip connecting us.  I have been thinking - '  What he saw in her face made him stop abruptly,

'Thinking!  You have been thinking?  I have been waiting here for an hour while you have been thinking.'  She was in a thoroughly bad temper and delighted to have someone available to act as whipping boy.  The gallery was cold and draughty and, although she would not admit it to herself, she had begun to notice the deepness of the shadows.  She was also beginning to have second thoughts on the advisability of what had seemed earlier an intriguing adventure.

'Do you think K'Ateros is a fool?  Do you think I am a fool, T'Avenda?'  She did not wait for an answer, which was just as well, since Avenda was certainly not fool enough to add fuel to the blaze in her eyes.  'You are spending the night with Tirla Te Manus.  You will deny it of course, but no-one will be surprised if she cannot resist boasting of such a notable conquest as the handsome young hero who brought his ship back alone from To'Hari Four.'

T'Avenda's face stiffened and he stood straighter.  'Yes, Lady,' he said colorlessly.

The Lady Lin, who had just recalled the circumstances that had brought him back alone, was immediately contrite, her temper forgotten.  'Oh, I'm sorry, 'Venda, forgive me.  Truly I had forgotten that your Three was broken there.'  Impulsively she held out her hands.  'Forgive me please.  And for this afternoon.  To you that must have seemed a mockery also, but it was not, 'Venda, not in my heart.  If only I could do as your girl did.'  Her eyes were very bright.  'I would be happy to die as she did.'

'No!' The word was torn from Avenda, who was remembering how Tisa had looked when the noises stopped.  'Oh, Grace, no, not as she did.'  Unconsciously he had taken her hands, his grasp tightened until she winced, and realizing what he had done, he stepped back.  'We had better go, Lady. I do not know how long it will take to reach the tavern, and we are already late.'

They did not speak again until they came to a massive metal door blocking the end of the short corridor leading from the base of the old lift shaft, when the Lady Lin moved in front of Avenda, and put the tips of the fingers of her left hand into four holes in the stone wall beside the door.  It slid open, revealing a small square room with another door on the opposite wall. 

A'Lin was going in when T'Avenda stopped her.  'Lady, are you sure this isn't guarded or monitored?  It doesn't seem reasonable that there should be an open way from the coast to the heart of the palace.'

She gestured him into the disused guardroom impatiently as the door began to close automatically.  'There are three doors between here and the exit in the old keep, with locks sensitized to my fingers, my brother's, my uncle's and the Guard Commander's.  If anyone else should try it, the Guard would be swarming here like Rokors over a bitch in heat.  The guardroom at the keep is monitored from the Lower Delta Command Post, but apparently K'Ateros has influence there as well as in the Palace.'  Altogether too much influence, she thought.  'The screens will stay blank this watch.'

She was looking over the wall as she talked.  'Here it is.'  She fingered another lock and the door slid open revealing the tunnel entrance and three small old-fashioned cars waiting at the end of the monorail track.  They had passed the last tunnel door before A' Lin said abruptly 'Did you love her very much?'  Their isolation in the dark car, with the dimly lit tunnel walls hugging close around it, was coupled with her guilty consciousness both of having been unnecessarily rude to someone of lower station, and worse, of treating lightly, although she had not intended it, an episode worthy to be included in the Books she revered. 

Normally she would not have dreamt of raising the subject.  Like quarrels among the nobility that might lead to a ritual challenge, a Three was not only an ancient social custom, however rarely practiced in modern times, but had strong religious associations, and could not be discussed without embarrassment.  A'Lin had no inhibitions about sex.  That she was still a virgin was due not only to her romantic adherence to the traditions of the old Empire, but to her lack of interest in any of the nobility of sufficiently high station to make them eligible.  Ka Sant attracted her physically but she disliked and distrusted him, and only the authority of the Tetrarch had persuaded her to that afternoon's masquerade.

The unusual situation had affected Avenda also.  He replied quite naturally, 'I loved them both very much.'  It was the first time he found himself able to speak of it to anyone, and the words came out in a rush.  'Tisa was my cousin, we grew up together in Averna.  I remember on my seventeenth birthday we were hunting, and I killed a Tarka Besar.'  He laughed a little.  'Seven meters trunk to tip, and my first.  She was nearly as proud as I was.  She even helped me take the mating fur, though she hated that part of the hunting.  I remember how cold the mountain stream was, and the fire we built in the twilight.  We were very happy.  We talked about the Corps, planning how we would stay together and all the great things we would do together.'

He paused.  'We met Thorken in training.  He was older than us, but he was not noble, so that when he chose to bear arms it took longer for him to be accepted, though he was promoted very quickly for a commoner.  I liked him, but I think he and Tisa fell in love as soon as they met.'  His voice was a little apologetic as he added 'In the Corps we don't bother very much about rank outside it.'

A'Lin repeated in a low voice, 'It is the free choice of every one of the Folk, whether to bear arms and their responsibilities, or to accept the protection of the armsbearer and accord him the honor which is his due.'

'Yes,' said Avenda, 'I remember Thorken quoting that once, when he was snubbed by the fat wife of a little country noble.  He wasn't angry' he hastened to add.  'He laughed about it.  I was angry, though, so was Tisa.  Anyway, I asked for a transfer into cruisers when I realized how things were between them, but when she found out about it, Tisa brought Thorken to our room.  She had been crying, her eyes were still red.'

'It was Thorken's idea that we should make a Three.  You see, to Tisa and me then, a Three meant only a legend out of the Books, or standing with two other bored children behind the Altar at one of the rituals of the House.  Thorken was really interested in such things, and he knew an awful lot about them that isn't in any of the Books.'   He looked for the first time at A'Lin who was listening intently.  'Do you remember visiting the base at Tia Tala?  Thorken was on the guard of honor, and he said afterwards that you looked exactly like the daughter of the first Emperor.'

'I have the same name, but - no, go on, 'Venda.'

'Well, it took a little time for me to get used to the idea; you see, I had already reconciled myself to losing them.  But once it was suggested, Tisa simply took it for granted that that was the way it was going to be.  Thorken and I were shy of each other for a while, though, at least until we made the Vow at the Altar, then it was all right.'

He was interrupted by the hiss of air brakes as the car came to a stop, but the Lady Lin made no move to get out.  'How long did you have before -?'  She had not meant to ask that but the story had touched her.

'Almost two years, and most of it on our own ship.  Then, on To Hari Four, the earth tremor came as we were unshipping the Spinner, and I woke up with both legs broken and a cracked skull.'  He squeezed his fingers deeply into his thighs.  'The lift jets had been damaged and Thorken was outside working on them.  Tisa was strapping me into the control seat so that I could check them as they worked.  Just then, whatever it was, it hit Thorken.  He shouted to Tisa not to come out, then he couldn't talk any more.  Tisa was standing behind me, watching him in the viewer.  She didn't say anything, but I felt her bend over and kiss me.  Then she went straight out the lock to him.'

Chapter 1: The Palace Chapter 2: The Outfleet Chapter 3: The Trader
Chapter 4: Shift Space Chapter 5: The Imperial Fleet