Chapter 9 MISTRESS AND SERVANTS
Domina Quaestor Xerza—she adamantly refused to be called a ‘lord’ when she was incontrovertibly a woman—stood next to one of the grand false-glass windows lining her legatio—her personal office and reception area—reading through today’s reports.
Outside could be seen the vast cityscape of Moeral Princeps, the capital city of the Barony of Moeral. Formerly part of the Saggitarius Combine, Moeral was one of many border worlds under Coalition control. An endless shade of steel, glass, and nanocrete, colored by twin orange suns setting behind soaring starscrapers. It was not real, but a projection displayed to provide the occupants of the interior portions of the massive building with a sense of light and space.
The Lady Quaestor had a habit of standing while reading. It was a habit some of her male servants approved wholeheartedly of. But only Prefect Maximilian Eccard was actually bold enough—or stupid enough, the jury was still out on that—to let his mistress know he enjoyed watching the way her body curved when she leaned just so against the window frame.
Now was not the time to comment quixotically upon her appearance, however, so Maximilian remained deathly still in his usual spot, two paces in front of the Quaestor’s spacious desk. Which incidentally gave him the perfect angle to appreciate the sight of his superior, without making it blatantly, impolitely evident.
The mistress was an unusually tall woman: in her heels, she stood taller than him. Maxi had never actually seen her barefoot or in low shoes, but a little educated guesswork put the crown of her head about level with his forehead.
Xerza’s face had the kind of classic feminine beauty you only found in works of art. The lines were too elegant, the proportions too balanced, the features too symmetrical for it to be real. In the flesh, such looks were found only in the faces of the almost-rich. Vainglorious women who could afford to buy beauty, but didn’t have the wealth to move beyond an off-the-shelf look. Not so with Xerza: she alone had the force of personality needed to turn the face of a statue into the face of a living goddess.
Beauty like that needed no garish embellishments, only the lightest touch of the boudoir-retainer’s brushes. The only exception was her lips: it was a rare day when her lips were not blood red, ranging from brightly arterial to sombrely venous as her mood dictated.
While the rest of Lady Xerza screamed of utilitarian considerations, she refused to let such concerns affect her hairstyle. She preferred to keep her long black hair up, always artfully arranged and kept in place with an ever-changing array of bejeweled hairnets. Maximilian suspected she had enough such hair decorations to buy herself a modest pleasure world should she ever decide to sell them. The hair was one of the Quaestor’s little quirks, along with the lipstick, the painted nails, and the high heels.
Pretty though her face might be, it was her body that was the real marvel. Nowhere, neither in art nor life, had Maxi seen something come so close to perfection. Xerza managed the impossible: to perfectly blend toned musculature with the soft curves of a full-bodied woman. No man who hasn’t been gelded—and a few of those who have—can look at her and not be smitten.
Xerza usually dressed in an austere fashion, favoring skin-tight bodysuits of gauze-thin crystal weave. The fabric was deceptively fragile-looking, but in reality, it was a wonder of the Technocracy—a material that was nearly impossible to cut or tear. Not exactly battlefield armor, but good enough to fend off cuts, stabs, and the occasional gunshot. She’d wear a pair of tight-fitting pants over the armor-weave, with fittings for her kine-blades and other legate trappings. An armored corset that threatened to send Maximilian’s imagination into overdrive. And high-heeled boots—she had an extensive shoe collection—that complemented the rest of the outfit.
The corset had another, more critical function than enticing Prefect Eccard: it was a psychic focus. The ribs were made of the same psycho-responsive material that Xerza used for her blades. She could use them to enhance her already formidable telekinetic powers. He had seen Xerza create impenetrable barriers to ward off blows and bullets, and watched her make great leaps that defied gravity. She’s sure to have other tricks down her bust as well.
“You are certain of this?” the Quaestor’s contralto cut through the silence. “Marcus has reached the Pentacle and is interrogating the chimera?” Xerza inquired with her usual intensity, without looking up from the print-outs.
“Yes, mistress. Our agent confirms that it is so, using one of the approved channels and the appropriate encryption protocols.”
“And this agent: he is well placed, his intelligence accurate?” This time her head came up in time to catch Maximilian looking at her in a rather unprofessional manner.
“She most certainly is, my Lady,” Maximilian replied, lifting his eyes to linger somewhere in the vicinity of Xerza’s artfully arranged dark-as-night hair, instead of upon her butt. “She has a leading position on the staff of the Second Pentacle.”
Xerza gave him one of her stern-but-forgiving looks. “Yes, of course. She. I should have realized. You do have a thing for female agents, young man.”
“I do, mistress,” Maxi admitted. “Women have qualities not found in men. Important qualities for an agent.”
“You mean like soft lips, pretty eyes, and alluring bodies?” Xerza replied. “Your lecherous ways will get you into trouble someday soon, Maximilian. Now quit stalling and get to the point.”
Maxi gave her his most roguish grin in return. “She is like you, my mistress: mature. But age has done nothing but hone her beauty into a sharp blade. A blade for young men to cut their hearts wide open upon. I know she will have no trouble getting taken into Marcus’s confidence—or putting him on his back.”
Xerza gave a very unladylike snort at hearing that, but Maxiknew that part of her was pleased. She might be his mistress and a Quaestor with a reputation, but she was still a woman. “Is there a reason why you seem particularly eager to flatter me today, Prefect?” she asked, adding a little sting to the last word.
“The skirt, my mistress.”
“The skirt?” Xerza replied, sounding genuinely surprised. “Is it too provocative for you? Is just below the knee too short? Should I have gotten something to cover the ankles, is that it?”
“Not at all. You look absolutely stunning. The boots, the skirt, everything is perfect—as usual.”
“Do explain,” Xerza snapped, her tempestuous temperament starting to show.
“The skirt. Literally. I mean, I’ve worked for you five standard years now, and this is only the second time I’ve seen you in it: you wore it on the day we first met, and today you wear it again.”
Xerza gave him a long, hard stare, but Maximilian could see her anger evaporating like mist before the sun. “Five years. You’ve been ogling me for five years, and you remember what I’ve been wearing for each of those days? That’s…no, don’t answer that,” she added. “Enough bantering. Let me have the details, or it’s a one-way ticket to the Abyss for you.”
Maxiknew he’d reached the end of the line for today. Time to become professional again. “The Cabal has somehow managed not only to learn of Marcus’s presence but to actually send a team to Nuovo Venezia. Probably led by a prefect-legate, but we can’t quite rule out the presence of someone high-ranking—a Cabal-friendly bishop or magister perhaps. ” He left out Quaestor. Xerza knew as well as anyone that the Cabal had its supporters within the Dragon Order.
“This is going to be bloody,” Xerza replied. “The Cabal will not back down. But it will be their operatives, not my man, that will be dead at the end of the day. Marcus is more dangerous than they realize.”
“Nevertheless,” Maximilian countered, “he is only one man. They are bound to outnumber him. Greatly. While I can appreciate the need to send only a single agent, it will make it much more difficult for him. And,” he added, pointing towards the reports in Xerza’s elegant hands.
“And what?” she replied. “You’ve made your point; you’re a clever boy. Now give me all the sordid details.”
“We have reason to believe a Reaper cell is involved,” Maxi replied, all humor gone from his voice.
“A Reaper cell?” Xerza asked rhetorically. “A Cabal kill-team—all the way out in the Venetian sector? Now that would complicate matters.” She fell silent, thinking. “Just in case: make arrangements to activate asset Sigma Draconis. And have this woman agent of yours get close enough to Marcus to be of use.”
“Your will, mistress,” Maxi replied.
“That will be all Prefect Eccard,” Xerza said, pretending to resume reading from her report stack.
Maximilian bowed smartly at the waist, before turning on the heel to march purposefully out of the high-vaulted office. Things to do, places to be. Best get to it then. The sooner he was done, the sooner he could report back to his lovely mistress.
The porter opened the gilded doors without a word, shutting them again the instant Maximilian stepped out into the hallway, leaving Domina Quaestor Xerza alone with her reports and her thoughts.
She watched him go. It wasn’t just him that liked to look at her. Xerza very much enjoyed watching him too. The cut of his gold-trimmed charcoal uniform showing off his tall, muscled form. His shoulder-length blonde hair, framing a handsome face with intelligent, mischievous blue eyes. And a smile that could make any woman giddy.
Only she was much less obvious about it. In so far as Maximilian noticed anything at all, it was only because she fed him the subtlest of hints. He probably thought he was smart to pick up on her cues, never realizing he was being played.
She sighed. Her appetites had been aroused, and her concentration was gone. She had been a sucker for Aaron since the very first time she laid eyes on him. No other men ever affected her so—and she had sampled quite a few throughout her unnaturally long life.
Tancred had touched her in deep and profound ways, of course, but that had been wholly different. He had seen beyond her tormented flesh, past her painful memories, reaching out to touch her, soul to soul. And just like that, the sins of the past, and the stigmata associated with them, were forgiven, and I became Xerza, Mistress of Heroes.
And Haides. He touched me, no doubt about that. There had been pain and lots of it. And blood. You didn’t get to be close to Haides without blood being spilled. To be honest, she had returned the favor, putting her marks on him, as he had on her. But those had been constructive pains. Like a woman giving birth, the agony had marked the transition from one state to another. Turning her, not from a woman into a mother, but from a pawn into a player.
Those two had touched her profoundly. But only one of Aaron’s blood could take her to the edge and keep her there. Only they could keep her coming back for more and more and more. There was nothing constructive about the way they touched her, made her forget everything, even her oath to the Dragon.
It wasn’t what they did to her; it was who they were. There had been other lovers: stronger, prettier, more skilled. But they universally failed to give her what she truly needed, failed to slake that thirst that could never be stilled. Like a demon, she hungered—and only they could fill the dark pit inside her, however fleetingly.
What little humanity the sons of Aaron possessed they would gladly offer up on her altar—and she could never refuse their sacrifices. It was a weakness she would rather have done without. They were the chink in her armor, her Achilles heel. They were the weakness that would see her fall from grace and into the Abyss. She knew it, and there was nothing she could do about it. Instead, she kept bringing him back, kept repeating the same mistakes over and over.
She wanted Maximilian, she wanted him now, and she wanted him more badly than she had in a very long time. She wanted to have her way with him on her gilded desk, on the windowsills, by the fireplace. She suppressed the impulse to call him back. She wasn’t weak. She was a Quaestor of the Dragon Order, a blessed agent of an agency far greater than the Gods. She had faced the vilest spirits of Tartaros and prevailed—surely, she had the strength of will needed to resist carnal temptation?
Besides, there was something special about this one, something that set him apart from the others. In a way, he was a throwback to the original, only more refined. It had been a while since one of them had displayed such a balanced physique, powerfully athletic, but without too much bulk, sharp features, but refined. This incarnation even looked like the original, more so than they had for a long time. And his upbringing had been on the wild side, which gave him a roguish streak. It was maddening at times, but it also added to his attractiveness.
Xerza looked down at the reports and sighed. It was too soon. He had not had his memories awakened yet. He was too young, too vibrant, too precious for her to waste on a whim. Five years in her service, and only just beginning the process of awakening. That was nothing. Ten years had been the shortest, and that had ended quickly and badly. They lasted longer and were more content if allowed to grow older. She would have to wait another decade, at least.
Xerza sighed again, all arousal gone, replaced by the bone-deep weariness only found in those who had lived too long and too hard. She tried reading through another report, but the words became a blur, mingling with old memories, creating a dreadful mental miasma that was sure to give her a splitting headache—and cause all sorts of minor psychic mischief. No wonder some of the staff believed the legatio to be haunted. In many ways, it was—by her.
She made her way to her desk, reports still clutched in her hands, and sank down into the baroque obsidian-and-gold cathedra that served as her office chair. This is going to be a very long day.
Dragon Order Prefect Maximilian Eccard pressed his left-hand middle finger against the security scanner. He felt a sting as the gene-scanner ripped out a piece of subdermal tissue. Immediately followed by a different kind of pain as the scanner sprayed the miniature puncture wound with a cauterant.
Xerza. What a woman. There had been other strong, intelligent, and alluring women in his life—in various combinations thereof. But once you get close to Xerza, other women pale in comparison. He had felt it more strongly of late: girls that would have attracted his attention a few years before were no more appetizing than yesterday’s leftovers.
Maybe ‘close’ is a bit of an exaggeration. He had worked under her auspices for some five years now, and just recently come into her inner circle. But I’m getting there. A grin spread across his face. I’ve never met a woman I could not win over. Domina Quaestor Xerza, red-blooded woman that she was, would be no exception. Sooner, rather than later, she would allow herself to be swept up into his strong arms, and together, they would take their relationship to new heights.
The communication station blinked to life, and the banks of monitoring screens started spewing out rows upon rows of machine gibberish, bathing the query chamber in green-tinged light. Maximilian didn’t bother sitting down, but began working, his fingers racing across the holographic keyboard floating in front of him.
Maximilian had gradually worked his way up the ranks and into Xerza’s confidence. Not worked—skyrocketed is the right word—up the ranks, from nothing to prefect in only half a decade. Advancement that quick was almost unprecedented. Only Marcus—that stuck up, sniveling bastard—can even begin to measure up to my track record.
Marcus Aurelian. Exceedingly talented, supremely dangerous, and a skilled legate to boot. The type of agent Xerza usually favored. When he’d first come into Xerza’s service, Maximilian had eagerly listened to talks of Marcus’s many exploits, of how much the mistress preferred him. But look at us now: Who is closer to the mistress now? Who gets to stand in her shadow every day—and who is forced to chase the around the galaxy instead? We both know the answer to that one.
It was a fact Maximilian liked to rub into Marcus’s face on those rare occasions when they met. One of these days, I’m going to get under your skin. Prove that you’re just as human as the rest of us.
Asset Sigma Draconis: Lord-Commander Kaminsky of the Harbingers to those who knew his real identity. Maximilian had met him only once—and briefly—two years prior, but the eyeless warrior legate had nevertheless made quite the impression. There was something terrifying about standing face to face with more than two hundred kilograms of pure killing power, spread over a two-meter frame, wrapped up in half a ton of exo-suit battle armor. Especially when, as a legate, he didn’t even need a weapon to kill you. His mind alone was enough.
Maximilian punched a series of commands into the query console, requesting an astral transmission conduit to the attack cruiser Oculus Draco—the Dragon’s Eye. Strange thing, to name a warship after a deck of cards. Elsewhere in the complex, the on-duty legate would get ready to send his spirit forth to carry Xerza’s orders between the stars.
Astral projection was the Order’s primary means of communicating across the vast distances of the cosmos. It required a legate with the right skill set to carry the message. Separating your spirit from your body, having it soar through the astral plane to a distant destination…it took a bit of training and practice to get it right. There were also risks, such as attracting unwanted attention from malevolent spirits.
The Technocracy had an alternate method of interstellar communication, one they jealously guarded. Maximilian had no idea how it worked, only that it relied on a vast infrastructure of transceivers. That made it less flexible—and far more vulnerable to interference—than projection. Its redeeming feature was being available to the general public—for a price—whereas astral projection was a commodity jealously guarded by those who had access to suitable legates.
Asset Sigma Draconis would be aboard the Oculus. So too would be a contingent of Draconic knights. A strike team of apex armored assault infantry, the most lethal fighting force humanity had ever fielded, pledged to serve the Dragon. The Harbingers of Draconic Wrath, ready to obey the whims of one woman. With their starship and supporting assets, that company of heroes is enough to take a prize a ship of the line—or conquer a minor planet.
The primary display began flickering, requesting that Maximilian enter his personal clearance codes. His recently acquired Dark Omega clearance was quickly accepted by the ghost in the machine. The Dark Omega. It was a sign of the trust Lady Xerza placed in him. Every computer system must obey the Dark Omega, the nobles and the common people alike must kneel before it. Even legates find their powers annulled in its presence.
The incomprehensible techno-runes faded and were replaced with legible script. Epiphanet. Doesn’t ring any bells. Maximilian called up relevant information about the planet and its system on a secondary display: Epiphanet, secondary Syndicate industrial nexus, located some seventeen thousand lightyears from the floating cities of Nuovo Venezia. What are you doing all the way out there, Kaminsky?
Maximilian’s fingers played across the ephemeral keyboard, inputting query after query. Fortunately, there seemed to be a well-used trade route between Epiphanet and Nuovo Venezia, following a series of conveniently located collapsars. Two weeks transit time at the most, possibly as little as eight days if the Oculus had a favorable in-system position and nothing untoward happened during transit.
Kaminsky’s reverie was interrupted by a soft chiming sound. After days of silent solitude, the sudden sound rang painfully in the Lord-Commander’s ears. He dismissed his anger at being disturbed. The others would not interrupt my meditation unless it is important.
A soft, reddish glow appeared, signaling that the chamber was shutting down. The sentiment was wasted on the blind legate, but to a sighted person, it would be a cruel thing to turn on the main lights without prior warning.
Gravity returned gradually. Kaminsky felt naked feet connect to rubberized metal. The floor plates groaned as more than two hundred kilograms pressed down on them, suggesting that whoever made the chamber had not thought to adjust it to accommodate his enhanced physiology.
The Apex trooper: half flesh, half machine, all warrior. Kaminsky drew his great alloy-and-composite skeleton to full height and flexed his powerful synthetic muscles. That’s how they market us to the public. He rubbed his abs, feeling the thick layers of dermal armor laced with his skin. Underneath were muscles far stronger than humanly possible, bonded to a skeleton stronger than steel. But there is far less flesh in me than half. Higher up his chest, the armor fused with his ribs to become a rigid yet flexible armored case protecting his vitals—even without his exo-suit, he was pretty much bulletproof. Man or machine—you tell me. My soul belongs to the Dragon, that is all that matters.
Kaminsky ran a diagnostic while he waited for the chamber to finish the shutdown sequence. His values were mostly good, but he needed to replenish a liter of water and some sixteen hundred calories. The backup circulation unit—the pump that would keep him going if his primary heart was damaged—was returning some strange values. It always did, yet no one had ever managed to find out what the problem was. He’d had it replaced—thrice—but the problems persisted. The damn thing is jinxed, that’s what the problem is. Machines and psychics don’t always work so well together.
The red light turned green, accompanied by a chime. Kaminsky hit the door release and stepped out into the cruiser’s athenaeum. The airy chamber was a shrine to Athena, goddess of warfare and wisdom, and the ship’s combined communications and intelligence section. Contrary to popular belief, the Dragon Order held the Gods of the Pantheon in high esteem—it was only the corrupt priests of the Conclave it despised.
Sergej, youngest and least experienced of the three Keepers—Draconic warrior-legates—assigned to the Harbingers, was waiting for his superior. Young and so very promising. But flawed, or he would not have been transferred to the Harbingers. We are the best of the best—and the least of the least.
“Report, Keeper Sergej,” Kaminsky ordered.
“There is a communiqué in the astral buffer Lord-Commander,” Sergej replied, “a Dark Omega, for your eyes only,” he added.
A Dark Omega. That means the Assembly, or, more specifically, Domina Xerza.
“Very well, I shall receive it immediately,” Kaminsky replied and began to unravel parts of his telepathic wards, creating an opening through which the astral projection could reach his mind.
The psychic image of Prefect Maximilian Eccard appeared inside Kaminsky’s mind. They had met once, years before, but the younger man hadn’t made much of an impression. Only Kaminsky’s divinely enhanced memory allowed him to recall the man’s face.
Maximilian had done well for himself in the intervening years—his current rank of prefect was proof of that. Perhaps I have underestimated him. I have a tendency to do that with non-psychics.
“Transmitter: Maximilian Eccard,” the mental image said. “Recipient: Asset Sigma Draconis. Security level: Dark Omega. Stand by to receive encrypted orders.”
What followed would be gibberish to any eavesdropper, but Kaminsky had the necessary decryption keys embedded in his mind. He was to take the Oculus and its complement of Draconic Knights to Nuovo Venezia within the fortnight. There he was to initiate contact with Prefect-Legate Marcus Aurelian—Kaminsky recalled the young prodigy with perfect clarity—and aid him in his appointed task.
The message didn’t specify what that task might be, but it was a given that violence would be part of it. You don’t call the galaxy’s deadliest warriors to babysit someone. You send them to kill.
“Our orders say two weeks to Nuovo Venezia,” he said out aloud for Sergej’s benefit. “I think we can do better than that. The Oculus is a fast ship, and this new Technomancer helmsman of hers seems promising.”
“She does,” his subordinate agreed, “but she has yet to be tested under stress. Whether she is an asset or a liability remains to be seen.”
“Indeed,” Kaminsky agreed. “Go to Agrippina’s sanctum and ask how quickly she can get us to Nuovo Venezia. Tell her it is of great importance. Tell her the mistress is watching our performance very closely. Tell her it would matter a great deal to me personally if we were to break all speed records getting there.”
“By your command,” Sergej replied smartly, made the sign of the Dragon—clawed right hand over the heart—and marched off to see to his duties.
Two weeks. Two weeks didn’t add up at all, not if a Dark Omega was involved. If Xerza was serious about this mission—and she was always serious—she would have demanded Kaminsky do it in seven or eight days. Which meant that he was either being tested—or something was afoot.
In any case, the Harbingers would arrive well before anyone thought it possible. Nobody expects the Dragon Order.