Against the Beast from the Sea, the Grace shall
give us refuge.
THE CONGREGATION: They are a safe hiding place.
Against rending tooth and tearing claw, the Power
shall protect us.
THE CONGREGATION: They are a sure shield.
They shall enter into the Three in Their image,
They shall give strength and wisdom to our House,
They shall let Their shadow fall over the Council-Throne.
The priest kneels before the Altar, takes the Cup, and kisses the rim.
The blood of the Beast has been spilled at Your
The Lord of the House has laid the sword at Your feet
He rises, turns to the congregation, and holds the Altar Cup high.
As we drink the blood of the Beast,
So shall They drink,
As we eat the flesh of the Beast,
So shall They eat.
THE CONGREGATION: So shall They drink,
So shall They eat,
And the Beast shall have no dominion.
From the 'Book of Ritual'.
on the command deck of the Mata Hari whose duties did
not keep them in one place, were clustered around the main visual
screen. As Ka Tal came in the excited hum of conversation faded and
they fell away respectfully to make room for him.
"That's the ship, my Lord," said Captain K'Amiros, nodding at the
screen, "it's a Trader for sure."
He and the other
officers stiffened to attention as a tall, immaculately uniformed man
entered the room. Admiral Vasil Ka Haris did not at all resemble his
elder brother the Emperor in outward appearance and what passed beneath
the surface was not permitted to show on his handsome face. His
intervention on the death of the Dowager Empress led to the Regency, a
formality which ended shortly in his brother's assumption of the
throne. After that he had taken little further part in politics. Ka Tal
had been surprised when he was summoned to join his uncle on the Fleet
flagship and found that he was prepared to support the Heir-Designate's
ambitious plans for renewed training and research in the physical
"Though conditionally, my boy," he had said affably when they
were alone, inhaling the complex combination of drugs and fragrances
from the delicate pedaled shell of the snifter. He adjusted the
controls, breathed cautiously and sighed with satisfaction. "Perfect,
truly perfect. When I find one like this, I am tempted never to change.
But even perfection palls, so I suppose I shall continue to seek and
perhaps regret what I so lightly discarded. I suppose you are too young
to regret anything, eh, nephew?"
"Only lost opportunities, uncle, and then only with the resolve not
to miss the next one."
Vasil eyed him over
the snifter held in his cupped hands. "Ah yes, but the opportunity
of the present, seized too hastily, may become a liability in the
future. I seized too hastily once. I was much younger then, of course,
and I have been more careful since." He returned smoothly to their
original conversation. "That is why I offer you my support in this
matter, or indeed in any other, only conditionally."
"And in this matter, sir, what are the conditions?"
"Oh, nothing beyond your capacity to provide, my dear boy. In this
matter," he looked up and smiled, "In this matter, a convincing
demonstration of the efficacy of the tracer your research section has
developed." He lifted a casual hand. "Oh yes, I know that it
works, your ship was able to follow the Mata Hari through an
unscheduled shift. I am convinced, and Captain K'Amiros is tiresomely
enthusiastic. But the Empire's resources are not quite unlimited, and
new colonization at the rate which Lord K'Ateros is planning will leave
little to spare for efforts in other directions."
"Now there is a man whom I find it difficult to
like. Of course," he added charitably, "he is a noble only by
courtesy, one should not expect too much." He cocked an eye at Ka
Tal. "I don't offend you, I hope, my boy. I suppose you must feel
differently about him, in view of his special relationship to you and
your sister, and - ah, your mother, of course." He bent his head
into the snifter again.
"I was still a child when I was with him in exile." Ka Tal was
curt. "I feel no obligation to him. Why should I? I resent his
influence over the Emperor. That is no secret."
Vasil inhaled too
deeply and sneezed. "Dear me, that was an unfortunate combination."
He rubbed his nose with a finger and smiled slyly. "Why no, my dear
boy, that is no secret, least of all to my brother the Emperor, but it
cuts him particularly deeply, because, you see, he resents it too. Now,
where were we? Ah, yes, if you wish to divert effort from K'Ateros'
colonization to your own - ambitions, it will require some spectacular
demonstration of what can be achieved. Now, if the Fleet were to
capture, with the aid of the tracer, an Earth ship and its crew?"
Ka Tal raised his
eyebrows. "That would indeed be spectacular, considering we have not
been able to come close in all the centuries of Interdiction."
"But we have never had a tracer before. Captain K'Amiros advises me
that if you can come out of Shift close enough behind them, a hit with
a sonic missile might paralyze the crew long enough for a Marine launch
to close and break in. Do you not agree?"
"Well, yes, certainly the chance is there, though with the tracer in
its present rudimentary form it will be an extremely dangerous
maneuver. But I agree it could be tried, and if Earth sends a ship out
through my sector I will certainly try it. I am delighted to hear that
you support me." He drummed his fingers on the table, he was
becoming tired of subtleties. "That is not the whole of your
conditions, I take it."
"No." Vasil set the snifter down carefully. "I do not wish to
bore you with what you already know, nephew, but some things bear
repetition. Twenty years ago one of our Scoutships discovered the
traces of a civilization, a highly technical civilization. Since then
we have discovered more, and it appears clear that an alien enemy is
moving in our direction." For the first time he let feeling slip
through the mask he affected. "We had achieved an Empire that could
have lasted for a million years, if we were left alone."
Ka Tal had no
patience at all for this. "Since it now seems that we will not be
left alone, that speculation is futile. And, frankly, I doubt your
premise. The Empire is an imposing edifice, but I have seen cracks in
its foundation, small ones maybe, but cracks nonetheless."
"We need not argue about that my dear boy, though I think the cracks
could have been repaired." The Admiral had retired again behind his
mask. "So, to extend your metaphor, we are now engaged in removing
one foundation and substituting another. At least you will agree that
is a ticklish business. You wish to reduce the conditioning of the
Commonfolk so that you can have more - ah, enterprising technicians.
K'Ateros wishes the same for his colonists, and the rest of us are
afraid of losing our - prerogatives, shall we say, so we caution and
delay - and make conditions."
Ka Tal sensed
that they were now arriving at the meat of the matter and waited
silently. "Out there is an unknown danger. Here there is a known
one, Earth. I will not help weaken the Empire to prepare defenses
against the one, if it means opening a door through which the other may
slip." He leant back and lifted the snifter again.
"So we capture an Earth ship, with agents of Earth government in it,
and use that to justify destroying any possible risk from Earth. And
Vasil shrugged. "Then
we have removed the menace at our backs, and you can concentrate on
remodeling the Empire with my support." He added. "With my
Ka Tal was in no
doubt as to what he meant. It was a tempting offer. Humanism, as far as
Ka Tal was concerned, was an idealistic dream. The Empire had little
information about Earth and the government of the Goddess, but enough
to prevent him from having any illusions about the difficulty of
joining two civilizations which had drifted so far apart over so many
centuries. He had been prepared to try, but principally as a
justification for the support of those who did believe in it.
Nor had he many
qualms about the possible death of millions on Earth and Mars. The
Grace had never been a gentle religion. Life had been cheap on Tios for
too long, and the pattern had hardened. Also, though he had little
sympathy for the Traditionalists, the Grace was part of his life. He
could not discard it and the web of ritual and observance that held him
too in the pattern. He despised its high priesthood, he laughed at its
mythology, but nevertheless he was part of it, and it was part of him.
Unlike his sister, he had no romantic ideas of returning to the ways of
an old Empire, which he saw clearly enough had never been.
He did not realize
that the new Empire which was his dream, was based on the same
illusions. It could not be otherwise His uncle was offering his
support, which meant the support of the High Houses. This meant that
the Empire would be his when he stretched out his hand to take it. It
meant the end of delay and obstruction. If he knew Vasil, and he
thought he did, it meant also the substitution of force for
conditioning. Hence his uncle's anxiety for the elimination of
any danger from Earth and the release of the Interdiction Fleet for
other duties. But Ka Tal himself had already accepted the need for
stricter control; temporarily of course, until conditions stabilized.
It was a very tempting offer.
Vasil had been
watching him with a slight smile on his lips. "Think about it, dear
boy, sleep on it, we can talk again tomorrow. Oh, one thing." He
felt in a side pocket of the long, jewel-trimmed over-gown he affected
when not in uniform. "Ah, here we are." He produced a message
coin and slid it over the table. "You really must be more discreet.
Of course, I know that you are much too sensible to swallow the
Humanist nonsense or lean too heavily on their support. But the Emperor
does not know you as well as I do. If that had gone to him -? Well,
that, as you would say, is a futile speculation, since it has not and
of course will not now. But you must, you really must, be more careful.
Good night, dear boy."
Ka Tal had spent a
restless night, not because of the information on the coin, though its
detail disturbed him a little. But his own plans were not nearly ready,
and he did not relish being forced into accepting Vasil's offer,
however tempting. Nor did he relish the thought of betraying those with
whom he had been working, though he could readily justify it. The
Empire was more important than any of them, including himself if it
came to that. Still, he was not happy. A'Lin would say it was not
worthy. The fleeting thought came as he finally fell asleep. It must
have lingered in his mind for he was somehow not as surprised as he
should have been when he was wakened with the news that a ship of the
Traders had been in contact with the Fleet, and was heading for the
flagship, and that his sister A'Lin was on board.
"Easy, gentlemen, easy." Vasil was his usual condescendingly
affable self. "Good morning, my boy. I hear that we are to be
honored by a visit from the First Lady of our House. I must say that my
niece has an odd taste in transportation. Now what do you think has
brought her here?"
Ka Tal was able to
laugh. "If you knew my sister as well as I do, my lord, you would
not be surprised at anything she does."
He was very
concerned. A'Lin was impulsive but she was also intelligent, so the
reason for this indiscretion must be a weighty one. He was seething
inwardly at the chance that had brought him to the flagship at just the
wrong time. "Our duties have kept us apart too much these past few
years. If she decided to join me, I can see her commandeering the first
ship she found. It was lucky it was only a Trader and not the Emperor's
yacht." A quick glance around showed that several of the officers
knew her or knew of her and accepted this readily. They were grinning
in sympathy with him. He went on, "If you will permit it, uncle, I
think she would be pleased to have me escort her to my ship."
"No, no my boy, now she is here, am I to be denied the pleasure of
her company? By all means take a launch and escort her, but here. The Mata
Hari has facilities, no offense dear boy, which your light cruiser
does not. She will be more comfortable if she stays here during her
visit and you too, my boy, I insist. Commander K'Aliera will do very
well without you for a while."
Ka Tal bowed, "You
are too kind, my lord." They smiled at each other cordially, but Ka
Tal was not surprised to find that a guard of honor, "We must
observe the formalities, dear boy," was to accompany him commanded
by the Admiral's chief of staff.
A'Lin wondered at her
usually undemonstrative brother's embrace when they met in the control
room of the Trader, until she heard the cautionary, "Be very careful!"
which he murmured as he kissed her cheek. She had taken time during the
tedium of the voyage to decide upon a story; not too far from the
truth, since she had no doubt that a courier from the Emperor was close
"I fear I am in disgrace with our uncle, Tal'A." She smiled
deprecatingly at him and the officer with the livid scar on his cheek
who was standing beside him. She had discovered as a child a natural
ability to blush and bring tears to her eyes when needed, though she
was careful to use the talent only in grave emergency. She concentrated.
"You see, I - I have decided to marry Ka Sant, and I am afraid we -
we were very indiscreet." She was watching them through her long
lashes and saw with satisfaction that while only puzzlement showed in
Ka Tal's face, the other officer's forbidding expression had relaxed,
and a small, cynical smile had shown when he heard Ka Sant's name. "You
know how I feel about the Empire, that we must return to the old
traditions. Well, I decided that if Ka Sant, Ka Lars and I made a
Three, as an example - " she let her voice trail off in a
convincing sob. "But the Emperor was furious. Oh, please, Tal'A say
you are not angry with me, too."
There was a stifled
sound from Miro, who had been effacing himself in the background, and
was remembering the cool efficiency with which she had so recently
disposed of Ka Lars.
Ka Tal was glad of
the diversion. "Who is that clown?"
"A Trader. This is his ship." She looked at Miro with menace in
her eye, and he lost all inclination to laughter. "I could not stay
on Tios in disgrace, and I persuaded him to bring me to you, although
he was reluctant at first, I don't know why."
There was a curt
laugh from Ka Brennis. "I can guess. Something in your hold you'd
prefer the Fleet not to see, eh, Trader?" He turned to A'Lin. "When
we have transferred your baggage to the launch, Lady, we'll clean out
this nest of vermin."
A'Lin hesitated. She
had made the Trader no promises, and she did not want to step out of
the character she was creating. She looked at Miro, and he looked back
at her steadily, without appeal. What had he said at the Tavern? Oh
yes, Trader's luck. His was turning but what difference, now or next
year, he must know it would, and her brother was too much at risk for
her to take any chances. Before she could speak the Pimp's nerve broke,
and he was out of the control chair and scrambling across the room to
clutch her knees. "Oh Lady please, oh please, have mercy." He
was groveling in abasement as Miro watched stonily.
Ka Brennis took a
long step forward and without undue haste kicked him savagely in the
face, lifting him off his knees unto his back, his arms sprawling and
blood spurting from his broken mouth. "You scum have been tolerated
too long. I am sorry, Lady, I did not realize they would dare touch
you. I shall see that they regret their presumption before they die."
He mistook her heaving breast and stormy eyes for resentment of the
Ka Tal, who knew her
better grasped her arm in warning, and had to tighten his grip to
restrain the full bodied blow into which she had been provoked. Her
instinctive fury subsided immediately, but the incident had changed her
mind. If that fool thought she was not capable of punishing presumption
herself, he would find out differently and she hoped the opportunity
would soon arise.
"I thank you, sir, but I have promised myself the pleasure of
dealing with them myself, in my own way." She moved over to touch
his arm, looking up into his face. "Nevertheless, I shall remember
your chivalry. I was foolish to come alone and it is good to know that
I am once again under the protection of the Armsbearer."
He bowed deeply. "Let
me escort you to the launch, Lady. The Admiral is anxious to receive
you himself on the Mata Hari."
She was demure now. "Thank
you, sir." She took his arm, and turned to Ka Tal. "You need not
leave a guard, Tal'A. They cannot escape and I want them left alone to
think about their fate." Her eyes met Miro's. "I will deal with
them myself, in my own way, in my own time. You would not begrudge me
that pleasure, I know. Now let us go. I have been long enough in
company with this - vermin."
Ka Tal laughed. Until
he could speak to her privately, all he could do was follow her lead,
and hope that she knew what she was doing. So far, her story was safe
enough. What was behind it would have to wait. "No use arguing with
her, Brennis, if that's what she wants. As she says, they're safe
enough in the shadow of the Mata Hari."
Ka Brennis hesitated,
but Ka Tal was already ordering the guard back to the launch, and the
Lady Lin was waiting for him to move, her brows beginning to lift a
little. He capitulated. "We must all obey when you command, Lady,"
he said gallantly, and was rewarded by a warm smile that set him
dreaming of a future higher than even his vaulting ambition had dared
So that we fail not in our
faith, forgetting the laws of the Folk, be it the Lord of the House in
his rule, the Armsbearer in his guard, or the Commons in his guild, in
Their wisdom They have decreed that none may know when the Beast will
swarm. Be it tomorrow or a thousand tomorrows hence, wake you not and
say, "This day is mine." This day or any day the guard at the
harbor gate may glimpse through the mist the swell of Its vanguard
heaving out of the sea. And when the Beast swarms, where then shall you
find a safe hiding place but in Them, what shall be your shield if They
forsake you? The Lord may falter, the Armsman fail, the House fall: let
you have faith, yea, even in the very maw of the Beast, and the Deep
shall not have you. Death is not the meanest gift of the Power; who of
the Folk need fear
death? For death in the Grace is life, and Life everlasting.
From the "Book of the Beast.'