The Scarlet Thread
by Wesley Williamson

Chapter Five : The Imperial Fleet

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

THE PRIEST:                     Against the Beast from the Sea, the Grace shall give us refuge.

They are a safe hiding place.

THE PRIEST:                    
Against rending tooth and tearing claw, the Power shall protect us.

They are a sure shield.

THE PRIEST:                    
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 feet,
                                               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.

So shall They drink,
                                              So shall They eat,
                                              And the Beast shall have no dominion.

From the 'Book of Ritual'.

Those officers 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 sciences.

"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 what then?"

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 wholehearted support."

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 behind her.

"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 indignity.

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 hope.

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.'

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