by Kathy Tyers
Lady Firebird Angelo was trespassing.
Shadowed by her friend Lord Corey Bowman, she squeezed and twisted through a narrow, upright opening between two dusty stone walls. She’d paced off twenty meters in silence. Her eyes had almost adjusted to faint, gray light from ahead and behind. Growing up in this palace, she’d explored it thoroughly and cautiously during her childhood. She hadn’t tiptoed between these particular walls since she found the gap, four years ago, when she was fifteen. If she remembered right, then in ten meters more—
Something rattled behind her. She froze. If anyone caught her and Corey this deep in the governmental wing, they could be done for. Powers help us! she prayed silently.
Slowly, she turned around. Corey crouched three meters away. He pointed at a loose stone and cringed a silent apology.
Time hung suspended, like a laser satellite passing overhead. They waited motionless, hardly even breathing.
Evidently, the Powers weren’t feeling vengeful—if those supernatural guides even existed, which Firebird had started to doubt. The soft voices behind the curved inner wall kept droning on, incomprehensible from this point in the hidden passage.
Firebird crept on.
The rough partition on her left enclosed an elliptical chamber. Inside, the highest council in the Netaian planetary systems held its conferences.
Firebird had heard whispered rumors among other cadets at the PN Academy: that the Planetary Navy planned to hold military exercises in Federate space, or that an attack was imminent—Federate or Netaian, depending on who’d heard whom—or that secret weapons were under development. None of her instructing officers had acknowledged those rumors. They kept their cadets working in blind, busy ignorance.
But this morning, staring out a classroom window-wall, Firebird had seen a silvery shuttle with Federate markings emblazoned on its underside decelerate into Citangelo spaceport. According to a hasty check at her desk terminal, the Queen’s Electorate had immediately closed this afternoon session to observers.
Maybe the Federates were protesting those rumored maneuvers, as she guessed—or trying to head off an open confrontation, Corey’s assumption. Someone had to find out, on behalf of the second-year cadets. If a war broke out, they’d be in it. In an afternoon hour reserved for studying, Firebird had sneaked home with Corey.
Ahead, light gleamed into their passage through an inner-wall chink. The palace’s builders, three hundred years before, had been more concerned with elegance than security. During her privileged childhood, Firebird had found many odd niches in this historic building where walls didn’t exactly meet, or where they came together at peculiar angles to create blind passageways. Palace security should’ve sealed every breach that gave illegitimate access to the electoral chamber. They’d missed this one.
On her next birthday, Firebird would be confirmed as a short-term Elector. That was her right, an honor she would receive as an Angelo. Then, she would tell the House Guard and the Electoral police about this passage. But no sooner.
She reached the chink and peered through. Inside the grand chamber’s red walls, lined with portraits and gilt bas-relief false pillars, the Netaian Systems’ twenty-seven Electors sat at a U-shaped table that surrounded a small foreign delegation.
Firebird glimpsed the rest of her family. Her oldest sister and confidante, Carradee, sat beside the gilt chair of their mother Siwann, a strong monarch who was already much more than the traditional electoral figurehead. Beyond Carradee lounged the middle Angelo sister, Phoena, the “beauty of the family” and Siwann’s obvious favorite. Though taller and lighter-haired than Firebird, Phoena had the same delicate facial features and large, long-lashed dark eyes. They’d often been mistaken for each other, to the disgust of both.
Five strangers stood below the U-shaped table’s open foot. The two who’d stepped forward wore dress-white tunics and carried recall pads. One addressed the Electors in clipped Old Colonial, the language of most colonized worlds in the Whorl’s great half-circle of stars. “ … as a surtax only on nonessential goods,” he declared, “such as … ”
What was this, a trade delegation?
Phoena exchanged disdainful glances with the Trade Minister, Muirnen Rogonin. Maintaining an indolent slouch, Rogonin—the jowly Duke of Claighbro—flicked two fingers toward the man who’d spoken. “I would see no reason to levy a military assessment against a well defended system such as Netaia, Admiral. Your logic is flawed.”
Admiral. Maybe their business wasn’t entirely trade, then—
Corey nudged Firebird from behind. “Hey,” he whispered. Reluctantly, she rolled away from the chink. She pressed against the inner wall, listening closely.
In recent decades, the Federacy had consolidated twenty-three star systems in the local spur of the galactic arm. Netaia, isolated at the Whorl’s counter-spinward end, had resisted confederation. Despite tight governmental control over their lives, most Netaians lived in proud and comfortable, if xenophobic, prosperity … so far as Firebird knew.
As the debate continued, she gradually concluded that the Federates did in fact want to set up a trading protocol. She glowered into the darkness. For this, she’d risked death?
Predictably, the noble Electors—the heart of Netaia’s spiritual and political power, which Firebird’s family served as standard bearers—were mouthing the same isolationist policies she’d heard all her life. Rogonin’s voice rose, boasting about Netaia’s high culture, its superbly terraformed ecological diversity, and the absolute lack of necessity of trade with any other planetary system.
All true, Firebird reflected with casual pride. Netaia was a wealthy world with rich resources.
She glanced at Corey. He stared through the chink, his oval face lit softly by fugitive light. Black-haired and freckled, he was broadening into manhood, but they never had— never would—become romantically involved. Both were wastlings. Both would die young, as the Powers had decreed for most of these third- and fourth-born noble children. Firebird and Corey had made a pact, years ago, not to make that fate any harder on each other.
She jabbed his midsection. “My turn,” she mouthed.
She pressed her face to cold stone and looked enviously on the five Federates. The thought of so many worlds, so much knowledge, frustrated her. She only would see the Federate systems as a military pilot, if at all.
Behind the two ambassadors, an honor guard stood at stiff attention, two armed men in ash gray and one in vivid midnight blue. Ash gray was for Tallis, the Federacy’s regional capital. Midnight blue…? Firebird frowned. She ought to remember—
Realization hit her like a laser blast. Midnight blue designated Thyrica. That was only a minor Federate system, but a few Thyrians were genetically engineered telepaths. Was this man one of them, and a spy?
Alarmed, she leaned toward Corey to whisper.
The Thyrian guard turned his head and looked straight at her.
Firebird’s jaw dropped. She hadn’t made a sound! Her pulse accelerated as the Thyrian stepped back from his formation to touch the arm of a red-jacketed Electoral policeman. He whispered into the redjacket’s ear, and as he did, she caught a sparkle at the edge of his right shoulder, where the telepaths wore their gold insignia.
She flung herself away from the wall. “Corey, they spotted us!” she whispered. They must move fast … and separately. Because she was an Angelo, she stood a better chance of surviving arrest. “Get out the underway,” she ordered. “I’ll go back through the palace.”
As Corey dashed toward a boarded-in cellar hatch, Firebird squeezed back through the narrows. Trying to run silently, she dashed to the passage’s end and scrambled up a stone partition. She rolled onto a crawl way, groped for the board they’d left loose, and whisked it aside, then peered down into the public-zone maintenance closet.
So far, so good. The closet was dark. Heart hammering, she lowered herself through the impromptu hatch and then cracked the hall door.
It swung out of her grasp, seized from outside. A massive, black-haired man backed across the marble hallway, covering the closet with a deadly service blazer. Kelling Friel, captain of the Electoral police, recognized Firebird at the same instant she recognized him. “Lady Firebird,” he growled, replacing his blazer in its holster.
She stood a moment, collecting her breath and her wits as she straightened her red-collared Academy blouse. The Electoral police carried special authority over Netaia’s small wastling class. Firebird had learned years ago—the hard way— that redjackets only honored regal manners, which they encouraged. A few wastlings eventually became heirs, so they all had to be trained, in case they survived to head their families.
She nodded a solemn greeting. “Good afternoon, Captain,” she said. “It’s only me.”
He stepped into the closet, peered into the dark gap in its ceiling, and then frowned. “I think, my Lady, that you’d better come inside.” He swept a muscular hand up the passway.
Into the chamber? A cold weight settled in Firebird’s stomach, but she had to obey. She walked beside him toward the chamber’s gilt doors.
Ten powerful families governed Netaia, guarding its traditions of faith and authority. Representing the ancient and holy Powers—its state religion—to the common classes, those ruling families religiously controlled their heirs. Third- and fourth-born noble children could live only until their eldest brothers or sisters secured their titled lines’ survival. Then, the young wastlings were ordered to seek honorable ends to their lives. Outranked, outnumbered, and constantly chaperoned by Electoral police, they had little chance of escaping that sacred duty.
Even earlier, an offensive wastling could be severely disciplined. Fifteen-year-old Lord Liach Stele had faced a firing squad two years ago for incorrigible behavior. Firebird had never liked Liach, but—required to attend his execution—she’d watched with sickened pity and damp palms. She too had been disciplined. Last year, an Academy senior had caught her practicing docking maneuvers on off-limit flight sims. For her punishment, the redjackets had injected her with Tactol, a sensory hyperstimulant that made every sight, sound, odor, and movement torture for an hour and then they’d locked her back inside the simulator. Despite the excruciating sensory overload, she’d flown the pre-programmed mission with furious determination. Her all-Academy record still stood.
She wiped her palms on her uniform trousers. Friel’s decorative sword harness jingled as he marched her through the chamber’s double doors and up toward the U-shaped table. A second red-jacketed Electoral policeman fell into step on her other side. Firebird drew a deep breath. Trying to look both submissive and innocent—although she felt neither—she looked up at her mother.
Siwann rose from her gilt chair. An unadorned coronet rode squarely on her coiffed hair. With her tailored scarlet dress suit, the effect mimicked a formal portrait. “You have been spying, Firebird,” she said. “Alone?”
Firebird was too proud to lie, but she never would’ve betrayed another wastling, particularly Corey. She stalled for his sake, glancing sidelong at her escorts in their long, gold-edged crimson coats. If she’d been three years younger, she might’ve tried to kick one of them. But since then, her oldest sister had married and borne her first child. Firebird’s life expectancy had already shrunk.
Carradee looked down from the table, biting her lip and raising both eyebrows. Their middle sister, Phoena, merely smirked.
Captain Friel gripped Firebird’s arm through the long auburn hair she wore loose over her shoulders. “Answer Her Majesty,” he ordered.
Gambling on a few more seconds for Corey, she glanced at the Federates instead. They’d stepped aside, waiting to resume negotiations. The slim Thyrian stood apart from his muscular colleagues, almost as if they answered to him, despite their weathered faces. He looked the youngest, with a straight chin and vividly blue eyes. He stared at Firebird so intently that for an instant, she imagined she could feel his scrutiny. He wore that gold star on his shoulder openly, either flaunting his identity or at least refusing to disguise it.
We see you, she challenged him silently. We know what you are. Go back where you belong.
Captain Friel tightened his grip. Firebird faced her mother again and silently prayed to the Powers that the Electorate wouldn’t try to impress the Federacy by executing her for espionage. “Your Majesty,” she said, lowering her eyes and hoping that by now, Siwann would want to get on with business—or with refusing to do business—and that Corey would’ve escaped. “I apologize for interrupting. I promise not to observe you again. Ever.”
The Queen stood, visibly evaluating Firebird’s breach of conduct. “This is my youngest daughter,” she told the Federates. “She has a history of playing hide-and-search in the palace. I assure you, she is no threat to this meeting’s security. However,” she added, raising her voice, “you are too old for games, Lady Firebird. You will not be dismissed with just an apology.”
Firebird’s stomach knotted.
“Friel?” Siwann’s voice echoed off the red walls, black marble floor, and domed ceiling. “She will show you her spying place. See that it is made inaccessible.”
The captain touched his cap in salute. “Any further orders, Majesty?” he asked blandly.
Firebird met her mother’s cold stare. This time, she didn’t beg the Powers for mercy. She’d been caught, and she faced the consequences. Phoena’s smirk broadened.
“Tactol, again,” the Queen ordered.
Friel grasped Firebird’s shoulder. She marched out, breathing slowly and deeply, maintaining a dignified brace until the massive doors boomed behind her. Then her shoulders relaxed. Some day, after Carradee and her prince secured the Angelo inheritance with a second child, she would kneel at the foot of that gold-rimmed Electoral table to receive her geis orders. Compared with that virtually inevitable sentence, one miserable hour was nothing. She’d survived Tactol before.
Still, maybe she could distract Captain Friel. “That one’s a spy,” she muttered ominously, pausing in the great hallway. “The guard in the dark blue tunic.”
“We know,” Friel answered. “They’re going directly back to their shuttle. They won’t see anything they can’t image from orbit. It’s another spy who concerns me now. You.”
She followed Friel back up the passway, disgusted. Five years from now she would be dead, guilty only of having been born after Phoena … while Phoena still sat on the Electorate, steering Netaian policies. The Powers had decreed their birth order.
Friel paused outside the hall closet where she’d emerged. “Show me your … no. Come this way first. You’ll remember this better if we stop in my office.”
Firebird’s poise slipped at last. Shivering, she resisted the childish urge to plead for a reprieve. She had only one irrational fear, but the redjackets had found it. Injecting instruments—intersprays, sub-Q and intra-musc dispersers, and old-fashioned needles—terrified her.
And it’d been a trade delegation.
Friel motioned her through an open door. She squared her shoulders. At least Corey had escaped. She wouldn’t cringe, wouldn’t cry. Wouldn’t react at all, if she could help it. She might be only a wastling, but she was an Angelo.