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The Wages of Sin
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ISBN-10: 1-89484-116-6
Genre: Science Fiction
eBook Length: 190 Pages
Published: November 2001

From inside the flap

Book two from Nublian Chronicles I - The Julian Trilogy Who shall sit in judgment of the judges, should they become corrupt? Unholy alliance and weapon without defense, who shall free the worlds from the conscienceless? Who shall choose the one who cannot be corrupted to free all the fearful voiceless suffering injustice? Where lies the duty of an emperor? Only to his people? Or to all?

Reviews and Awards

Kate Saundby once again weaves an intricate tale of justice, passion and action. Although I missed the flowing narrative used so well in SINS predecessor, THE WAGES OF JUSTICE, I still found the novel intense. The new characters are intriguing, and I look forward to more of the Nublis series novels.
-- Reviewed By: eBook Connections

The Wages of Sin (Excerpt)

Book Two

The Wages of Sin: Rules of War

Chapter 1

A Detour for Julian

In the fifth millennium, the silver beaches of the planet Nublis' magnificent Northern Shore remained as inviolate as they'd been in the first. This strand was no exception.

Prince Cassius de Raven circled for a landing and set his black and red flyer on the oceanfront mansion's emerald lawn as lightly as a feather. He hit the switches prior to opening the door and the electric motors whispered into silence. After the hustle and bustle of the city, the surf's booming into the wild stillness was a literal balm to his soul.

As he swung his lanky form down from the flyer, two small dogs jumped up and down barking a welcome and his waiting hostess offered him her cheek to kiss. He gave her a friendly squeeze and she cocked a delicate eyebrow at him. "What, no security?"

"I'm the bastard, remember? It's my lordly brother who has to worry about things like that. Where's His Nibs this morning?"

"Aaron came in late from some inspection tour or other. He's still sleeping."

Always beautiful, Galia Alazne Fortier was one of those fortunate women on whom pregnancy sat like a well-worn glove. Her copper hair was brightness itself, her skin pure mother-of-pearl, and her emerald eyes an ocean depth at least.

If Cassius had any doubts that his imperial brother's former mistress had found safe harbor with her fifty-year-old captain, the expression in them put it to rest. As they began walking toward the house, he looked her up and down appreciatively and kept his tone deliberately light. "Aaron's taken to his new duties, I gather, and I assume the pair of you are still lovebirds."

"He's taken to this job like a duck to water and he says he feels as if he's been doing it forever. He's a natural-born administrator, but at home we're just a couple of old shoes. It's only been seven months since we moved here but it seems like forever. What about you, my dear? Any prospects in sight?"

The prince rolled his dark eyes heavenward. "The landscape's littered with willing damsels, and every weekend, Corey comes up with a fresh batch. I think she considers my bachelor status an affront."

"That's only because she and Julian are so happy."

"And doing their best to repopulate the planet single-handed. At least this one's not going to be twins. The only question is which of you is going to pop first."

Too late, he saw Galia's wince. "I'm sorry! I didn't think! Forgive me, Galia. These days -"

"Oh, Cassius! It's all right. You've enough memories of your own without having to worry about mine."

Pushing open the door, she motioned him into the coolness of the house. "Speaking of His Imperialness, what's he been up to lately? Up here in our Northern Shore aerie, we hear little or nothing about the doings at court."

"He's being his usual pleasant self, albeit a mite bored. Things have been on such an even keel lately, he's becoming concerned. You know our Julian. He never could stand prosperity for long."

Cassius was right about one thing. His august half-brother was bored. As short as his brother was tall and as mercurial as Cassius was calm, the energetic silver blond emperor thrived on challenge. It had been seven months since he and his small band of defenders had retaken Nublis from the pirates who had invaded and occupied their planet so summarily. The last of the InterPlanetary Synod and Trade League military fleets had left and the spaceport, the Parliament and the empire's green-spired capital city of Cyrenia were finally returning to their normal routines.

Julian would never have believed he'd miss his daily battle of wits with Ethan, but he did.

He liked to think he and Galia were still friends, but never in his wildest dreams would he have anticipated the direction her life had taken. Unexpectedly pregnant by Ethan, she'd found refuge with Aaron Fortier, his former captain of the imperial guard, and despite the twenty-five-year difference in their ages, the two of them appeared deeply in love.

Corey's latest pregnancy had also been unanticipated and the tiny empress waxed increasingly cranky as the summer wore on. The twins were teething and much as he loved his children, Julian had lately been avoiding his wife's crowded apartments. Since Cassius was visiting Galia and Aaron on the Northern Shore, there was no one to talk to. To relieve the tedium, he decided to take a weekend trip to the sacred mountain and go camping with the Mountain Scouts, that indomitable group of bush pilots who policed Nublis' rugged backcountry.

To his delight, his new flyer was even faster than the old one.

After strapping himself in, he agreed with his bodyguard, Malachi, that it was an absolutely beautiful day and he began his preflight checks with the tower. The moment the clearance signal chimed, he hit the booster switch. As the thrusters kicked in, the craft gave a slight shudder and he made a mental note to have maintenance check it.

The flyer rose steeply from the roof. They reached the top of the climb, and Julian switched off the thrusters. He went to level out and bank his craft toward the river but nothing happened. He flipped the compensation switches with no response. Then the indicators all dropped to zero. Cursing, he grabbed the emergency communicator.

"Imperial One to tower."

"Tower here, Imperial One."

"I'm in a climb and can't level out. Have lost all power to the controls. Yoke's not responding. Manual override's not responding. Am attempting a re-land."

Before the tower could answer, the tiny craft stalled. After hanging suspended for what seemed like an eternity, it began cartwheeling slowly downward in wider and wider arcs. Missing the palace roof by just a few feet, the flyer landed upside down in the great square with a thundering crash, skidding to rest against the palace's white marble steps.

Amid buckling metal and crunching glass, the craft's wounded hydraulics hissed and bled into the waiting stone and the electric motors whispered into silence.

Julian turned his head back and forth a couple of times and flexed his arms. Unsnapping his harness, he reached for the co-pilot's seat. "Malachi! Are you okay? Say something!"

He found his bodyguard's arm and was feeling for a pulse when he heard something above his head. "Your Majesty, are you all right?"

"I think so but Malachi's not saying anything."

"We'll have you out in a moment. Are you in any pain?"

"I seem to be okay but I can't move my legs. Something's got them pinned down and it's pitch dark in here."

"Don't move. You're upside down and what you're hearing is the cutter. We're peeling away the wall next to your seat. Now can you see?"

Julian blinked and knuckled his eyes. "It's still dark."

"We're going to pull away the wall now. Is your harness fastened?"

"No, but something's holding me in the seat. You need to check Malachi. I can't find a pulse."

He heard more voices and felt the craft give as someone climbed in. A hand touched his shoulder. "Your Majesty? Hey! Bring that cutter over here! All right, we're getting the console loose. That's what's holding you in the seat. I'm putting a support board underneath you. Just let yourself fall. Hold your arms to your sides and let me put this strap.... Okay, he's secure. Let's get him out, stat!"

This is ridiculous. Why don't they just let me climb out?

"What about Malachi?"

"We're getting him out. Open your eyes and tell me what you see."

"I keep telling you! Nothing! If you want me to look at something, dammit, why don't you turn on a friggin' light?"

"It's broad daylight, Your Majesty, and I've been shining a light in your eyes for the past five minutes."

One of the voices outside his door was Corey's and the other belonged to Dr. Polycarp. It had been three days and the man sounded frustrated. "We can't find any physical reason for it, Your Majesty. We've had two neurologists in to look at him and an eye specialist is on his way from Aretz. We haven't told him he may never walk again and don't plan to as long as he's still in the cast. It'll be coming off in three or four weeks."

Corey blushed. "I don't know if this is an appropriate question, Doctor, but we have a very physical relationship. What about that?"

Polycarp smiled faintly. "It's a very appropriate question, Your Majesty, and your concern is understandable. There are certain things we can do but how much will depend on the extent of the paralysis."

"At least he isn't in any pain, and he's been very good about cooperating with the therapist and maintaining his upper body strength."

"There's one way we can help with the blindness. A voice-activated computer should be here tomorrow. It features a probe that feeds images from a special camera directly into the brain. If he wants to read or write, it'll translate text into speech and vice versa. He says he's been neglecting his music and I've suggested he start working on his keyboards."

"I'll have them sent over. Has he complained about the food?"

"As a matter of fact, he has. He was very uncomplimentary about his breakfast this morning."

"That's a good sign. He's been so docile since the accident, he's had me worried. I'll go on in. If I know him, he's looking for me and wondering why I'm late."

Julian already knew there was something direly wrong with his legs. When he pounded on the cast with his fist above the fracture site, it should have hurt like hell. But it didn't. From something the doctor said, he knew his feet and toes were sticking out of the cast but he couldn't move or feel them either. In fact, from his waist down, he couldn't feel a damn thing.

Corey's silk dress rustled and a slight click told him she was wearing her emeralds. The chair's legs squeaked against the floor as she pulled it close to the bed. He took in a deep breath and savored the scent of her. When he felt her breath's warmth, he wound his fingers in her hair. Pulling her face close, he put his arms around her neck and gave her a long kiss. Finally he released her and laid his head back on the pillows.

"Did you sleep?"

"After they gave me something. When I awoke, I heard birdsong and assumed it was morning."

"Your breakfast wasn't to your liking?"

"That wasn't food. It was an impostor and a rotten one at that. Did you ask when I can get a proper meal instead of this gluey stuff? It's mushy, has absolutely no flavor and most of the time, it's lukewarm. Yecch!"

Corey sighed. "It's got something to do with your digestive tract. As soon as it's working properly, you can have solids again."

"Are you saying I'm not functioning down there?"

"According to Dr. Polycarp, you're eliminating everything just fine. Because they want to keep it that way, they've got you on this special diet. They're going to take the cast off in a couple of weeks and that's probably when they'll start giving you regular food."

"Corey, my love, you've never lied to me, so don't start now. When they remove the casts, my legs still aren't going to work are they? There's a pretty good chance nothing else down there will either. Am I right?"

"Dr. Polycarp didn't tell you because he thought you couldn't handle it."

"What in the hell does he think I am, terminally stupid? When they were pulling me out of the wreck, I heard one of the medics say I was paralyzed and I've had enough scans since then to make a full-length feature film! Day after day, they do something to my feet and then ask me if I can feel it. And Corey, my love, if I'm eliminating anything, it must be automatically. I haven't been handed so much as one bedpan since I've been in here!"

When she didn't say anything, Julian touched her face. It was wet with tears. "Don't cry, turtledove. The worst moment of my life was when my wretched cousin Titus had me helpless on the ground and told me what he was going to do to you and the twins. Compared to that, this is nothing! Incidentally, Cassius called this morning. After his visit, Polly will be very anxious to send me home. He thinks he and his clinic are safe from practical jokes because I'm in a cast and can't see. Hah!"

Remembering Julian's last stay in the clinic, she couldn't help giggling. "What are you going to do?"

"Better you don't know."

"By the way," she said, "Cassius found out what caused your flyer to go out of control. It was a factory defect. Before you even took delivery, there was a whole slew of similar crashes on Aretz with that particular model. When the victims sued the manufacturer, the Aretzen courts found in their favor and ordered a recall. The manufacturer appealed to the Synod, and Chief Justice Veniston overturned the verdict but the important thing is, Malachi's death wasn't your fault."

"That's good to know. I suppose I'd better file suit as soon as possible."

She patted his hand. "I'm way ahead of you and Cassius says he'll do the paperwork. The story is that Justice Veniston went on an all-expense-paid safari with MagnaJet's chairman and got a huge interest-free loan from him right before he made his ruling."

"That's why Malachi's dead and I'm lying here blind and paralyzed? We have to do something about that man and I know where I can get everything I need."

"You have a way of getting at Veniston?"

Julian chuckled. "A personal pipeline to his former partner in crime. Now I know I have to get out of here."

"Your room's ready and waiting, and everything's lined up and ready to go."

"What about food? This glop they're feeding me is making me homicidal."

"Maybe Cassius can come up with something more palatable that'll still be within the doctor's guidelines. Oh! Ooof!"

"What's the matter?"

"Nothing. Your son just kicked me and he kicks hard. Do you want to say hello? Put your hand right...."

As Julian felt the new life within Corey, he thought about the fight to come and decided the future might not be so grim after all.

A week later, the emperor was listening to a viewscreen newscast.

"This is Vicki Monata on Nublis. This latest crash has re-ignited the controversy over the safety of the Peregrine Falconette flyer manufactured by the Aretzen conglomerate, MagnaJet. The Interplanetary Flyers' Association has just issued a rebuttal to MagnaJet's statement that the Peregrine Falconette was never designed for the type of high-speed takeoffs for which the Emperor Julian was famous. According to a spokesman for the IFA, Julian de Raven is a skilled pilot with an impeccable safety record and this type of high-speed takeoff has been incorporated into every training program in the Synod. Like his brother Cassius, the emperor is a military flight instructor, and he performs battle maneuvers on a regular basis with the fighter squadron he commands near Nublis' capital city, Cyrenia."

"Way to go," muttered Julian. He was playing with the buttons on the probe control for his new computer and trying to focus the tiny camera at the same time. Finally, he shut it off in frustration and returned to the viewscreen direct feature.

A soft voice came from the direction of the doorway. "It takes practice and it's really hard the first few times."

Julian turned his head. "You must be the volunteer who's going to help me master this thing." He switched on the camera again, focusing more slowly this time. Closing his eyes, he looked at the image. You have brown hair, a blue dress... and sunglasses."

"The glasses are because I'm as blind as a bat. People get unnerved when I look at them with my eyes shut. The dress is actually green but that's just a matter of color correction. Here, I'll show you." Her hands made an adjustment. "Once you realize the camera's slower than the eye, you'll do all right and this thing beats a guide any day of the week. You'll learn not to swing your head around too sharply. You're liable to make yourself seasick if you do. Dealing with a wheelchair is just a matter of angles and knowing where to shoot. But I'll warn you, the camera can be tiring. My name's Kira and I know who you are."

As she extended her hand he took and held it for a moment. "Call me Julian."

A couple of hours later, footsteps approached the bed.

"Little brother, the archon wants to see you and he was pretty insistent from what I hear. The majordomo's here to take you to him."

"All right, Cassius. Now, how are we going to do this?"

"Before we do anything, turn on your camera. The terminal's already on the gurney and here's your probe control."

Once he was on the gurney, Julian turned his head carefully and focused. He got an image of a figure in red. "Good morning, Majordomo. I think I'm ready to go." He moved his head and focused again. "Oh, there you are, Cassius. Thanks for whatever you did to my breakfast. It had a better texture and was quite palatable for a change."

"The doctor seemed quite impressed and he's asked me to look over the dietary department. I may get a whole new career out of this."

Julian fiddled with the probe control. "You know, there are actually some advantages to being blind. I don't have to look at people who don't interest me, and when I want to take a nap, I can do so without anyone being the wiser."

Cassius laughed. "Trust you to find something. Now get out of here. The archon's probably wondering where you are."

After Julian had turned off the probe, he leaned back on the pillows and closed his eyes. The gurney started to move. They went through the door, down a busy hallway, and then they stopped. "We're in the cell behind his apartment," said the majordomo. "I've dismissed your attendants and I'm about to open the panel in the back wall. I'll let you know as soon as we're inside and when to turn the camera back on."

When he saw him, the archon was shocked by Julian's appearance. The emperor's silver-gilt hair had lost its brightness, his golden skin had taken on a sallow cast, and his huge gray eyes were unfocused with deep shadows beneath them that looked like bruises.

The gurney finally stopped and Julian turned on the camera. He saw his host's expression and grinned. "If you think I look bad now, you should have seen me a week ago."

The archon was puzzled. "They told me you were blind. Yet you can see me?"

"After a fashion. This tiny camera over my ear transmits images directly to my brain via a surgically installed probe. It even includes a gadget for video reception."

"Interesting. May I see it?"

Julian removed the camera and held it out. "Now I'll have to guess where you are. After bringing in a dozen specialists, they still can't figure out the blindness. Finally, I told them to quit poking and prodding and leave me in peace."

The archon took the camera to his workbench and examined it through a jeweler's loupe. He picked up a tool and made several adjustments. "Try it now."

"What did you do?"

"Move your head and you'll see. Faster than that."

"Hah! I can swing my head around and not get seasick. Thanks, but how did you know?"

"One of my captains was blinded in an explosion and the surgeons gave him something similar. He was instructed to move his head slowly and focus the damn thing manually. I imagine they told you the same." Julian nodded and Ethan continued." After I took his camera to my workshop and played with it for half a day, I discovered a neat little auto-focusing feature. Someday when you're bored and have nothing better to do, you might look up the instructions in your help index. They're buried in some obscure submenu under a name that makes no sense to anyone except the engineer who wrote them. Rather than have my captain spend endless time deciphering them, I set something up in plain everyday language. I can give you a copy if you'd like."

Julian thought of Kira. "I would like."

The archon wheeled the gurney over to his computer and attached a lead to Julian's terminal. He looked up a file and said, "Transmit."

After a few seconds, the computer chimed and he disconnected the lead. "Now you've got everything you need. It's in your main menu under Camera, Focus, Auto."

"You're pretty good at this."

"When you have as much equipment as I did, you'd better know something or your subordinates'll break you. I learned that from my foster father. His operation may have been smaller but his profits were better than most. He watched his costs like a hawk and kept his eye on everything. There wasn't a job on his ships he couldn't handle and unlike the other lords, he'd frequently roll up his sleeves and work alongside his men. But enough of that. That's not why I asked you to come."

"Why did you?"

The archon glanced briefly at his majordomo. "A little bird told me you're about to tangle with the Chief Justice."

"You didn't learn that from me."

"It wasn't hard to figure out. Majordomo, could you leave us for a while?"

"You've got fifteen minutes."

When he was gone, the archon took something from a cabinet. A foot high black glass ball set on a carved crystal base, colored lights darted back and forth in its center. He guided Julian's hand to one of the carvings. "This is a copy of an ancient Medean witch ball. I made it myself."

As Julian watched, a hologram of a very tall man appeared. His striking features were dominated by piercing black eyes, a patrician nose and a flowing mane of snow-white hair. Richly dressed in soft green velvet, he wore an ornate jeweled pendant around his neck.

"There's your Chief Justice. Augustus Veniston himself, in the flesh."

"This is a listening post?"

"Since I'm not supposed to have it, you'd best take it with you. Cover it with a blanket so the majordomo doesn't see it. One night when Augustus and I were partying it up in his chambers, he got drunk but I didn't. After he passed out, I slipped a surgical implant into the base of his skull. Then I set up a bunch of cameras inside the trophies on the walls of his office. The surgical implant triangulates His Honor's location and transmits audio, but you can only get video when he's there. If you turn this switch, you can look at the whole room and whoever's with him. I hooked the audio and camera transmissions into a special set of relays and coded them specifically to this receiver. It may not look like much but it uses red diamond crystals and is plenty powerful. The switches are here in the base and I've placed the instructions in your terminal. They're in your main directory under Eavesdrop, Justice. There's no way I could not have known about your crash. The impact must have reverberated all the way to the Northern Shore. I already knew all about MagnaJet and their troubles with the Peregrine Falconette, so it wasn't hard to put two and two together. A couple of years ago, MagnaJet ran into financial problems. To cut corners, they began installing a cheaper control system they were getting on the black market through one of my colleagues. Since I'd assumed MagnaJet had stopped that particular practice after the recall flap, I was unconcerned the day you flew me up to the sacred mountain. Had I had the slightest inkling, I would have refused to set foot in that damn craft."

"Are you telling me MagnaJet did this deliberately? They knew my Falconette was unsafe before they shipped it?"

"Sure. A couple of MagnaJet's engineers even went public. After one disappeared and the other was found with his throat cut, their employees got the message. Your customized version was a limited edition collectible and they never did make more than a very few. The old ones were hand-built and perfectly safe. They're apparently cutting corners on them too. At the price they charge, seems unbelievable, but judging by what happened to you, that's exactly what they did. I once heard Augustus say there wasn't enough money in the universe to persuade him to set foot in a Peregrine Falconette, customized or not."

As the outer door opened to admit the majordomo, the archon took something from his workbench. "I finished this yesterday. It's a get-well gift."

The majordomo shucked his robes and silken mask and looked curiously over Julian's shoulder. "Would anyone care for a drink?"

"I would. How about you, Your Majesty?"

"Yes, thanks. But fruit juice is about all I can handle these days."

Julian looked to see what the archon had given him. About fourteen inches high, it was a detailed scale model of Nublis' sacred mountain complete with the Scouts and their horses. Focusing his camera even closer, he saw a perfect miniature of his flyer in a grassy meadow halfway up the slope.

Ethan guided his hand. "Here. Push this."

Julian pressed the tip of the mountain's rosy peak. The model swung open in two halves to reveal an exquisite diorama of a mossy glade. Within it was a pool fashioned from a piece of diamond-clear rock crystal and a pair of snow foxes and their three tumbling kits, painstakingly carved from rare white jade.

Tears filled his eyes. "You made this for me? It must have taken months!"

"I did the preliminary sketches the day you took me there and I've been working on it ever since. I'm making a companion piece depicting the mountain's crystal cave and my ghostly predecessors on their golden thrones."

"I have something for you. As of yesterday afternoon, Your Grace, you have a fine healthy son. He has blue eyes and dark hair and the Fortiers are naming him Zachary after Galia's father. When he's three months old, his parents will bring him to the sanctuary for the traditional presentation. Since you'll be presiding over the ceremony, you'll get to hold him in your arms. Aaron Fortier will love him as if he was his own son and Zachary will have every advantage you did not. I'll send you a picture as soon as I receive one."

Ethan's eyes misted. "At a time like this, it's difficult to know what to say. Till I met you, I never knew the meaning of the word mercy. It was a term I'd associated only with cowards and weaklings. But you're neither. It took a rare kind of courage to stand alone at the spaceport and face me the way you did. With a hundred weapons pointed at your heart, you still looked me in the eye and gave as good as you got. You taught me that mercy and strength go hand in hand. If I had to be defeated, I'm glad it was by such a one as you."

Julian glanced down at his useless legs. "I'm not feeling merciful right now, and there was a time when I'd gladly have slashed your throat. Fortunately, Cassius caught my hand."

The majordomo put on his mask and robes and went to answer a knock on the door.

"Your Majesty, that was a message from the clinic. Your wife's about to go into labor and they're prepping her for surgery."

Seeing Julian's agonized face, something clenched at Ethan's heart. He thought of the terrible night when the twins were born and the empress had almost lost her life. "The old ones told me Corey's going to be all right. Go to her, my friend, and welcome your son as he completes his difficult journey from the great pool of life to his new world."

Julian sensed a roomful of people and he could hear them setting up equipment.

The doctor spoke. "Your Majesty, we're about to remove the cast. The slight buzzing is the saw cutting through the material. After it's off, you'll probably feel cold because your legs have been insulated. Ah! The fractures have healed nicely and most of the muscle tone is still there. You have excellent bone density and no atrophy to speak of. Hmm. Joints are limber. Color and circulation look good. Now, let's try this. What do you feel? Anything? No? How about here?"

"I don't feel a damn thing and my legs aren't cold either."

As Cassius watched in horror, a medical attendant stabbed a needle into the bottom of Julian's foot. "How about now?"

"How many times do I have to tell you, Doctor? Whatever the hell you're doing, I can't feel it."

When the attendant prepared to plunge the needle in again, Cassius grabbed his arm. "That's enough. Can't you see it's bleeding, you stupid bastard? Now clean it up and put on a dressing. Then get the hell out of here and don't you ever come back! I swear, if I ever see your ugly face again, I'll rearrange it so your own mother won't recognize you! As for you, Doctor! My brother has enough scars as it is! He told you he can't feel anything and enough is enough!"

Amen to that. Thanks, big brother.

When he was satisfied everyone had left, the emperor concentrated as hard as he could on his right leg. He carefully visualized it in his mind, starting with the foot, and with every fiber of his being, he willed it to move. Nothing.

He tried the same thing with his left. Again with no result.

Nothing loath, he maneuvered over to the edge of the bed. Lifting his legs with his hands, he pushed them over the side. So far, so good. He sat for a moment, visualizing first his legs and then his feet. Finally, he pushed against the mattress as hard he could. He stood up momentarily and hit the floor with a resounding crash. The door opened and he heard running footsteps, then more and more footsteps till the room seemed to be full of people. A pair of strong arms lifted him back onto the bed.

"Your Majesty, what do you think you're doing?"

Cassius' voice came from somewhere above him. "Dammit, Julian. First thing in the morning, we're going to start you practicing with the wheelchair and crutches. Till then, would you mind telling me what it's going to take for you to stay put?"

"Get Corey to keep me company. Otherwise, I won't."

"All right. I'll have them get her and the baby right now."

He heard arguing and the word "restraints" a couple of times, then Cassius spoke again. "They're bringing her over here. In the meantime, the doctor wants to see if you did any damage."

Hands began palpating his upper torso. "Only to my ego. And Polly, if you know what's good for you, don't even think about putting me in restraints."

The doctor replied, almost too quickly, "I shouldn't dream of it."

"The hell you wouldn't! You've been thinking about nothing else since I came in here."

Dr. Polycarp thought about the whoopee cushions in the boardroom and sighed. So skillfully hidden in the chair pads as to be completely invisible, they had added an entirely unexpected dimension to yesterday's monthly meeting. The chairman of the clinic's board was Julian's redoubtable father-in-law, Lord Rollo. His lordship had no sense of humor and the resultant tongue-lashing had been pungent and memorable. The offending chairs had been removed and the remainder of the meeting had taken place standing up.

"How you managed it is a mystery but it was most definitely you!"

"Managed what? Not only can I not see but I've been stuck in this bed... in a cast yet... for the entire time I've been here."

"Oh, you did it all right, but this time, you had an accomplice! Now you're out of that cast, I'm not taking any chances. First thing tomorrow, you're out of here!"

"I heard," said Corey. "Father told me when he came to see the baby. Really, Julian, isn't it time you and Cassius grew up? Just look at the example you're setting for Cass and Deborah! Not to mention their little brother!"

He sat up and opened his arms. "Come here and hold me. I want to -" But when she went to embrace him, he pushed her away. "Who in the hell am I fooling? You may as well take a lover, Corey, because I'm no good to you anymore. You're young and beautiful and full of life, and you deserve a whole lot better than this... this... this... nothing! I can't see! I can't walk! I can't do anything for myself! I can't even...." He opened his eyes wide and stared sightlessly toward the ceiling. Finally he clenched his fists and began pounding them on the bed in frustration.

"Hush, love. You'll wake the baby. Even if you were in one piece, sweetheart, it's much too soon. As far as your being no good to me, I talked to the doctor about that weeks ago and he assured me there are things they can do to help. Your life isn't over, Julian. It's just going to be different from now on, that's all. As for my taking a lover, that's for me to decide, not you. Right now, I don't care for the idea at all." She pulled back the sheet and slipped in beside him. "Now turn over and give me a kiss." When Julian didn't move, Corey realized he was asleep. She lay awake the rest of that long night, looking out into the darkness and wondering about the future.

Three months later, Julian decided to take control of his life.

He came down the hall to his office to a scattering of applause. One of his secretaries came forward with a bouquet of flowers and he graciously accepted the offering. To the delight of the small crowd of workers, he pulled her onto his lap and gave her a hug.

The guard smiled broadly and opened the door.

With a final wave at the crowd, Julian turned his wheelchair and guided it inside. It took a moment for his camera to adjust to the difference in the light. "What are you all doing here?"

Galia spoke up. "We heard you were coming back and this is as good an excuse as any for a reunion. Cassius made a few things and we got you a gift."

It was impossible to see his eyes behind the dark glasses, but the lines around Julian's mouth and his pale complexion bore witness to his ordeal. There was a tremor in his hands, and in the trim black flight uniform, he appeared excessively thin. Even his silver-gilt hair had lost its brightness.

As if he guessed what Galia was thinking, the emperor turned his head and smiled. "If you think this is bad, you should have seen me before I got out of the clinic."

"Why don't you come over here?" suggested Corey. "Then we can see if your chair's the right height."

When he reached the desk, Julian found a package in its center. He removed the gaudy wrapping and howled with laughter. "You shouldn't have!"

His partner in crime grinned. "Giving you your own personal whoopee cushion seemed appropriate."

Julian tested the device with his finger and the sound set him off again. "Did Lord Rollo figure out who did it?"

"Immediately, if not sooner. Ever since that meeting, he waits for everyone else to sit before he does."

"Obviously," huffed Aaron, "neither of you has mended your wicked ways. Without my steadying influence, you two are now worse than you ever were."

He came over to the wheelchair and gave his former charge a hug.

"Captain, you're a sight for sore eyes. Judging by your appearance, married life must agree with you."

Julian pointed his camera toward the corner where Ellie sat in a leather wing chair with Jonah hovering over her. "Welcome back from Aretz. How long before the blessed event?"

Ellie smiled shyly. "The doctor says two weeks. The university's given Jonah a leave of absence but he's brought all his books and materials with him. He has to maintain his grade average, no matter what."

"Speaking of which," asked Jonah, "how's the progress on the silk plant project?"

"The servants did a pretty good job of keeping them alive and I'm getting closer. Corey's switched her avocation to plant genetics and she's been working with me."

"Now that you can eat real food again," said his wife, "let me get you a plate and something to drink. And yes, it's true, Jonah. At first, I did it to help Julian. Now I've become fascinated and I'm making it my permanent productive requirement."

Galia picked up an object from a table near the window. "What's this?"

"Bring it over here and I'll show you. Set it on the desk and press here."

As the two halves of the mountain opened, Julian explained, "The archon made this for me. It's a depiction of the snow foxes on the sacred mountain. If you'll bring me that one from over there? Thank you. This is the companion piece. It's the cave in the heart of the mountain with the sacred pool and the old ones on their golden thrones."

Galia looked closely. "Two of the thrones are empty and there's a figure almost halfway across the bridge."

"That's interesting. When I looked at it yesterday, the figure was further back."

He looked over at Cassius and shivered. "If you look more closely, you'll see the sacred fish."

"You're right. There they are and they're all the colors of the rainbow."

Ellie joined him by the desk. "This is the most exquisite work I've ever seen. The archon did this? I thought he was a chef."

"That was the old archon. He died."

"I'm sorry to hear that. So that's why there's a new majordomo. What became of the old one? I had a lot of respect for him."

The emperor glanced at Aaron.

The captain's face was impassive. "He's fine. He went back out into the world and is leading a normal life."

"We'll get to meet the new archon tomorrow," said Cassius. "Are the babies coming to the presentation?"

Corey sighed. "They sure are and I pray they'll be quiet during the ceremony. Deborah's teething and she's pretty fractious right now. Let's eat."

Once they were settled with their plates, Julian remarked, "As long as we're all here together, it looks as if our little band may have a new purpose. That's if you're interested in helping me again."

"Of course, we are," replied Jonah and murmurs of assent rippled around the room. "What's up, Your Imperialness?"

"Chief Justice Augustus Veniston is what's up. My lawsuit and Malachi's are inching their way through the courts. But even if we get a verdict in our favor, we all know that he's going to set it aside. A nifty little listening post came into my hands a few months ago, and we're using it to watch everything he does. The device is contained in this witch ball. It's wired into another recorder that's monitored all the time, so I can turn it on and off as I wish. Take a look." He pressed one of the carvings and a moving hologram appeared. "That's Augustus Veniston."

He pressed another button and the picture zoomed out.

"There's his office. In addition to the cameras, Lord Ethan gave His Honor an audio implant. We always know where he is and can monitor his conversations, even when he's away from his office. Unfortunately, we no longer have a military tribunal to try him and I see no way to get him before the archon. We'll have to bring him down ourselves under Nublis' Rules of War."

The intercom chimed softly. "This is Julian."

"Your Majesty, the majordomo would like to speak with you. Are you taking calls?"

"Put him on."

"Welcome back to the complex, Your Majesty. His Grace would like you to stop for a drink. Five?"

"I have to go to the sanctuary but I'll see him after that. Tell him thank you for the second mountain piece. We're admiring it."

"He'll be pleased to hear that. We'll see you at five?"

"Five it is."

He pressed the button. "What's my schedule?"

"Two hearings tomorrow morning in Court A. The afternoon's been cleared for the presentation. The first hearing's at nine and the second at ten thirty. The documents are in your second right drawer."

"Anything this afternoon?"

"A meeting in Magistrate Cato's office at three. Something to do with intercourt communications."

"Make my excuses. Anything else?"

"The Parliament's Assistant Secretary is hosting a reception for Synod trade delegates at four with dinner to follow."

"Make my excuses."

"What's this brochure?"

"A safari to go after the eastern Oryx on Betelgeuse. One of those VIP things with video stars and sports celebrities. They come all the time."

"What's an Oryx?"

"I don't know, Your Majesty, but I'll find out."

"Please do."

Julian studied the brochure, tapping it with his fingernail.

Cassius knew that look well.

"Julian, you've hardly eaten a thing! Is there something else I can get you?"

"What? Oh, no, thank you. No reflection on you, Cassius. I don't eat much these days."

"Drink this anyway and take these supplements. You need them."

Obediently, Julian washed the capsules down with the glass of juice Corey handed him.

Cassius looked at the captain and raised an eyebrow.

"I saw that, and I'm not nearly as henpecked as you think. But there are times when it's easier to go along with her than to argue."

Corey gave him an affectionate hug and he caressed her cheek.

"It's almost time for Janus' feeding. That baby maintains a strict schedule and if I'm five minutes late, he'll let me know about it for the rest of the day. Then I'll go up to the conservatory. Dear, that yellow plant is about to bloom."

Julian pressed the intercom. "Her Majesty is about to leave. Please notify her escort."

Galia gave Julian an affectionate kiss. "Aaron and I should be going too. We'll see you at dinner tonight. Corey, we'll walk with you."

Ellie rose awkwardly to her feet. "Wait for us. I have a clinic appointment and Jonah needs to hit the books."

When he and Julian were alone, Cassius began picking up glasses and plates and stacking them on the table near the window. Julian was still looking at the safari brochure. The door opened and his secretary came in. "This is an Oryx, Your Majesty. Will there be anything else?"

"No. That's fine, thank you. Cassius, will you quit fussing. Food service can take care of it later."

Cassius sat in the wing chair Ellie had just vacated. He put his feet on the matching ottoman and waited for Julian to tell him what was on his mind.

"Turn on the viewscreen and dial it to the hunting channel! I'm shutting off the camera so I can look at it on video direct. The damn thing's been giving me a headache anyway." Julian pushed his wheelchair away from the desk and began guiding it blindly toward the windows.

"The camera probably needs adjusting again, As long as you're going to see the archon, why don't you have him take a look?" The wheelchair beeped, indicating an obstacle, and he moved a chair out of Julian's way.

"That's the one problem with company," groused the emperor, "they rearrange the furniture."

"They're so used to you wearing the camera, they forget you're blind and need everything left in place."

"If they had to use it as much as I do, they'd understand why it's a relief to take the damn thing off. Kira was right about that. It is tiring even with the autofocus. Everyone thinks this camera's so wonderful, but believe me, it's not the same as being sighted. My bedroom's the only room where I'm safe without it. Corey's apartments are a minefield, but that's inevitable with babies all over the place."

"How are you doing in the independence department?"

"I'm pretty good. I can dress and undress and go to the bathroom by myself, and I manage to get in and out of bed and the wheelchair. I've been practicing with that electronic brace affair but I still fall half the time and I'm a long way away from being able to use it in public. People are always trying to help me and I hate that!"

"What's the latest on your new flyer?" Cassius' voice was casual.

"The modifications are finished and they're supposed to be delivering it next week. The good news is I'm allowed to fly. But only with a qualified co-pilot and I'm not permitted to do high-speed takeoffs any more. I can drive a ground transport too but I have to have someone with me all the time."

Cassius laughed. "You do anyway. What do you think your bodyguard is? A cheese sandwich?"

"I know, but the whole thing makes me feel hemmed in."

"Have you got the hunting channel on now? What's this all about anyway? It's to do with Augustus Veniston, isn't it?"

"Yes, I have the hunting channel on. I can't see a thing because they still haven't figured a way to have the viewscreen and camera on at the same time. If you tried to watch a regular screen with this camera, you'd find out very quickly what hell is. If you'd be so kind as to guide me to the balcony. That's better. Now, where was I? Oh, yes. Augustus. The man's a trophy freak and we can use that to get at him. He's on the hunting channel constantly, and I've turned the damn thing on for inspiration. We've got some pretty rare fauna here and I'm sure there's something we can use to tempt him."

"One problem. The only hunting we allow is with a camera."

"Our Augustus has marked criminal tendencies. How about a clandestine safari for something so rare he can only find it here? If it's a one of a kind, he won't be able to resist."

"His Honor's not stupid and he trusts us just about as far as he does the League. Which is not at all."

"It's time to break out the coronets and go trolling for tame celebrities to use as bait. We need to whip up public outrage against MagnaJet anyway and can kill two birds with one stone. I've got a sheaf of invitations to talk shows, interviews and functions all over the Synod. Between us, we could cover a lot of ground in a short time. First, we need to establish a time frame. Then we can make a list and divide it up. You're an eligible bachelor prince who causes female flutters wherever you go, I'm a romantic tragic figure, and Corey's a famous imperial beauty with a legendary jewel collection. As distinguished-looking as the captain is, all I need do is give him a title. I was about to do that anyway. With Galia, he can't miss and Ellie and Jonah are the tabloids' favorite sweethearts. We'll be instant headlines in every tabloid in the Synod, and after that, we won't have to shop for the celebrities we need. They'll come courting us."

"Are you up to this? You hate crowds and publicity more than anyone I know. At the best of times, you find people very tiring and no more so than now."

"I've given this a lot of thought. Alone, I couldn't begin to handle it. With the defenders' help, I can. Once we have our celebrities in hand we have to find a trophy to use as bait. All we need do then is set our trap. His Honor's greed should do the rest. If you're interested, Archon intelligence has uncovered something else about our distinguished Chief Justice. In addition to being a respectable married man, Augustus Veniston heads up the biggest fundamental religious group in the Synod. "

"Everyone knows that."

"True, but how about this? Our Augustus not only plays around on the side, but he has kinky tastes and a yen for a certain physical type. It happens that we have an agent who qualifies. Her name's Sarvia Ramya."

"I remember her case. She was a teenage prostitute who'd murdered her pimp in cold blood. When she came before me, it looked like a rubber stamp. A certain inflection in her voice told me there was a more to it. She'd been in mortal fear of the man. When she claimed self-defense, she was telling the literal truth. The pimp wanted her daughter, but Sarvia refused to give the child up. He'd debauched her in the same way and now he was coming after her little girl. When she sought protection, the law did nothing because he was the child's father. The man was a wealthy crime lord, and so canny and well-guarded, she couldn't get at him by ordinary means. Knowing his tastes, she set up an exotic evening of passion. Arrogant bastard that he was, he walked right into her trap. After pulling out all the stops, she drugged him in a highly imaginative way. Let's just say she didn't use a needle and he didn't ingest the stuff by mouth. After he passed out, she shot him through his right eye with an ornamental bow and arrow she just happened to have hanging on her bedroom wall. To make doubly sure, she shot him through the left eye as well. When I asked why a bow and arrow, she said it was to avoid waking her child. After making certain he was dead, she used her victim's communicator to contact city security. She suggested they get there before the guards in the next room decided to check on their boss. Because of the premeditation and the second shot, I had no choice but to find her guilty. I wrestled with her sentence for two days and searched every jurisdiction in the Synod for some pretext to grant her leniency and reunite her with her child. I found nothing. After a great deal of deliberation, I set aside the requested death penalty and sentenced her to life with no possibility of parole. When I handed down my verdict, Sarvia sobbed as if her heart would break and I knew I was right. Later, I shifted her into my special program. She's one of its brightest graduates."

"I had no idea you knew her."

"It was a bit before your time, when Father was still on the throne."

The emperor sighed. "I was making my living as a keyboard plunker and chasing from one concert to another."

"You made a very good living and you were considerably more than a mere plunker. Didn't some critic or other call you a living classic?"

"My publicist never let me forget it. The woman splashed that phrase over every billboard she could find. She persuaded me to look the part by letting my hair grow and got me to appear onstage in floppy silk shirts with big sleeves and black velvet pants. When it came to the pants, the tighter the better. I spent more time worrying about whether the damn things were going to split than I did my music. Quit laughing. It wasn't one bit funny."

"Well, did they?"

"Did they what?"

"Did your pants ever split?"

"Not onstage, but I had a couple of close calls elsewhere. One involved a tussle with someone of the female persuasion so maybe it doesn't count. Finally, I put my foot down and said 'no more.'"

"I saw a picture of you in that getup. You looked like a dissolute poet."

"Those were the days. Now, back to the matter at hand."

"You really hate him, don't you?"



Julian took in a deep breath and let it out again. "You don't know how much. Our ancestors dealt with this kind of scum in imaginative ways and I find some of their methods really appealing."

The prince raised his brows. "Just remind me to never get on the wrong side of you. Before I leave, do you need help with anything?"

"No thanks, old buddy. Do you?"