Read The Gathering Flame Online

Authors: Debra Doyle,James D. Macdonald

The Gathering Flame

Table of Contents
“What you have to realize, son, is that almost all of the people who were there at the time are dead. And everybody who’s still alive is lying to you about something.”
—General Jos Metadi to an unknown interviewer, some time after the end of the First Magewar.
RREC RANSOME—late of Ilarna, now copilot and navigator of Jos Metadi’s
—ran up the broad staircase of the Double Moon two steps at a time. In the public rooms behind him, the sounds and smells of raucous celebration filled the air like thick smoke. Metadi’s privateers had come back again to Waycross, and the party had just begun.
They’d had a good run this time. Nobody had gotten blown up—except for Celeyn, and that was his own damned fault—and the Mageships had dropped out of hyperspace right where Errec had told Jos that they would: cargo ships, big and arrogant, full of the treasures of half a hundred worlds. The Mages hadn’t expected serious trouble at a neutral planet so close to their home territory, and they’d counted on the warships escorting them to take care of any trouble that did occur.
They’d been wrong. The Ophelan system was a long way from the main privateering lanes. That was why the cargo ships had chosen it for their fuel and repair stop before heading back across the gap between the Mageworlds and the civilized galaxy. But Ophel wasn’t so far away from civilization that Jos Metadi couldn’t persuade other privateer captains to follow him there. When the cargo ships and their escorts made the translation from hyperspace, it wasn’t just
that waited at the drop points for them: it was a whole fleet.
Now that the voyage was over and the share-out done, most of the privateers seemed intent on spending their cut of the proceedings as fast as possible, with the eager help of every bartender and brothel keeper in Waycross.
Jos Metadi had already banked most of his portion—he hadn’t made it out of the Gyfferan slums, and into command of his own ship, by being careless about finances—but even he hadn’t banked it all. The captain liked money, and with good reason, but he also liked the undoubted pleasures that money could buy.
The Double Moon sold most of them. Ransome was aware, as he hurried up the carpeted staircase, of the seething, sweating presence of the establishment’s other patrons. He ignored the pressure of their unspoken desires, and made his way down the narrow, red-carpeted upstairs hall.
Translucent glowcubes in filigree holders marked each door, but Errec didn’t have to read the brass plate outside number seven to know that he’d found the right room. He pounded on the polished wood with his fist—pounded hard, because the Double Moon had extensive soundproofing underneath its old-style façade—and shouted, “Jos! Are you in there?”
The answer came back, muffled by a treble thickness of wood and insulation: “Go away, Errec. I’m busy.”
“Jos, there’s a girl downstairs!”
“There’s a girl right here. Go away.”
Errec tried again. “The one downstairs wants to talk to you!”
“One minute!”
Errec laughed under his breath and started back down the hall to the stairs. Jos was likely to take more than a minute to disentangle himself, and somebody ought to keep the lady amused while she was waiting.
The private room downstairs was furnished with carved wooden furniture upholstered in crimson velvet. The lady herself—fair and petite in a full-skirted gown of frosty blue—sat bolt upright in one of the high-backed chairs, knees together and hands on knees. A formal mask of black velvet covered her face from well above the eyebrows to halfway down her cheeks. Her mouth looked young, though; surprisingly young, for the aura that surrounded her.
thought Errec.
This one is iron.
He wondered if the two gentlemen standing with her realized it. They were both older than she was, but seemed to have little else in common beyond a firm conviction that being here at all was a very bad mistake. One of them—a large man, dark and heavily muscled, with strength and training apparent even beneath his fashionable clothing—stood on the far side of the room, his back against the wall, in a position that afforded a clear view of both doors. Whatever this one’s title might be, Errec decided, his work was the selective application of violence in the lady’s interest.
The other man was slight and grey-haired, dressed in plain dark clothing cut out of good cloth. He stood at the lady’s left shoulder and gazed about with a quizzical air, as if he’d never been in a place like the Double Moon until this evening. An old family retainer, was Errec’s conjecture, keeper of the young noblewoman’s reputation … or at least, considering where they all currently were, of her virtue.
In spite of Waycross’s bad name for violence, the three carried no obvious weapons. That meant they assumed power—and people with so much unconscious surety of their own power, often had it.
Errec stepped across the threshold. The heavy door swung shut behind him. “Captain Metadi will be with you soon.”
The woman nodded. Ice-blond hair in an elaborate set of curled braids swayed with the motion. Her eyes behind the mask were a bright, startling blue. She said nothing.
Errec was aware of the younger man’s assessing gaze: was this one potential trouble, the bodyguard was wondering, or was he a person of neither threat nor consequence? A spacehand’s coverall didn’t argue for much by way of wealth or position, and—like the woman and her escorts—Errec Ransome didn’t carry any obvious weapons.
He ignored the two men and spoke to the woman directly. “What is the nature of your request for Captain Metadi?”
The bodyguard’s dark face grew even darker. “That is a matter for Her Dignity to discuss with the captain himself.”
“I’m Metadi’s copilot,” Errec said. “I’ll learn about the whole business soon enough.”
The bodyguard folded his arms across his chest and set his jaw. “Her Dignity wishes it this way.”
The door to the private room opened again as they spoke.
“You can tell Errec anything you can tell me,” said a familiar voice. As always, Jos Metadi’s words had a strong down-home Gyfferan twang, even when he was speaking careful Galcenian. “He’ll need to know anyway, if the ’
’s going to be part of it.”
The lady spoke for the first time.
“Leave us,” she said. Her voice was clear and well bred, with an accent that Errec didn’t recognize. Her blue eyes swept from the bodyguard to Errec and back. “What I have to discuss with Captain Metadi, I will discuss with him alone.”
Her other escort, the older man who stood at her shoulder, looked distressed. “My lady—”
“You too, Ser Hafrey,” she said, over his protest. Then, turning again to Metadi, she went on. “I have hired a room, Captain, for three hours’ time. I’m told that’s the usual span you linger with a woman here.”
Metadi shrugged. If he was surprised—and to Errec, who was as familiar with his moods and expressions as anybody living, he didn’t seem to be—it didn’t show on his face. “Sometimes more, sometimes less,” he said. “It depends. Lead the way.”
The woman stood, her long skirt rustling with the movement, and crossed the room to the inner door. With her hand on the lockplate, she paused.
“Wait for me outside,” she told her escorts. “I’ll join you afterward. Now, Captain—”
Jos moved to follow her, catching Errec’s eye as he did so. “Same thing,” he said; and added, in the thick portside Gyfferan that served as the ’
’s business language, “See if anybody on the street knows what’s going on here, would you?”
Errec nodded. “There’s a café,” he replied in the same tongue. “The Blue Sun. I’ll start there and meet you afterward.”
The Blue Sun wasn’t far—a short walk along the noisy, garish Strip. When he got there, the main dining room was crowded with newly paid free-spacers. Some of them had come to get a cheap meal and a stiff drink before embarking on their evening’s carousal. Others—the ones that Errec was interested in—were there to buy or sell things of value, information included.
He slid into the first open booth he came to, inspected the menu pad, and signaled for plain bread and cheese and a mug of the local beer. He was in the mood for something quite a bit stronger, but it looked like he’d be holding down this booth for quite a while.
Three hours,
he thought, and laughed again, softly, to himself. If the lady was pretty and skillful, Jos sometimes took all night.
Jos Metadi, more amused than not by developments so far, nodded at Ser Hafrey and the bodyguard and followed the young woman into the private room. The door—an automatic one this time, unlike the old-style wooden panels that adorned the more public areas of the Double Moon—slid closed behind him.
The room contained a small table and two chairs, in the same curved and ornamented style as the furniture of the outer chamber. Heavy brocade curtains obscured the dim alcove in one corner. His interest, already piqued by the lady’s mask and her brace of escorts, quickened even further.
Whatever she’s got in mind,
he thought,
it’s not the usual.
The lady sat down in one of the chairs, and waved a hand at the other. “Captain Metadi,” she said. “Pray be seated, and let us talk.”
For a fraction of a second, Jos thought about accepting her invitation at face value. Then he decided to push things a little instead. The lady wanted something from him; he might as well let her know that the price wouldn’t be low. He moved over to the table and stood behind the empty chair, resting his hands on the carved arch of its high wooden back.
“First things first. The mask has to come off. I don’t make deals with anyone I can’t see.”
Her mouth curved in a faint smile under the black velvet. “Fair enough, I suppose.”
She reached up and undid the tabs holding the mask in place. The black velvet slid away; she caught the mask as it fell, and placed it on the table in front of her.
“There,” she said. “Shall we proceed?”
Jos looked at her. She was younger than he’d expected, considering the weight of authority in her voice, with fair, unblemished skin. The contours of her face were clean and pure, saved from arrogance only by the warmth of her mouth and the vivid blue of her eyes. Her brows and lashes were darker than her hair, ash blond rather than ice. His glance continued appraisingly downward. She was pleasingly buxom, and he found himself imagining—he wrenched himself back to the present, hoping that the track of his eyes had gone unremarked.
“I’m afraid that you have the advantage of me,” he said, pulling out the chair and seating himself as he spoke. “You know me—by name and reputation, at least. But I don’t know you.”
The lady regarded him for a moment before seeming to come to a decision. “Very well. I am Perada Rosselin, Domina of Entibor, of the Far Colonies, and of the Space Between.”
thought Jos, keeping his expression unchanged by an effort of will. Since becoming a privateer, he had needed to learn who ruled which planets, and something of their alliances. The whole tangled nest of them made his head ache sometimes.
Who’s … yes, Veratina. Whoever this is, though, she sure as hell isn’t Veratina. But if the old woman’s dead … I thought that Veratina’s heir was a schoolgirl on Galcen.
He looked again at the lady across from him, and revised his estimate of her age downward by several years. At her majority, clearly, or she wouldn’t be claiming the title … but closer to girl than woman. Not yet twenty, Galcenian, that much was sure.
Don’t let her age fool you, hotshot. This girl’s been training to sign death warrants since the first day her pudgy little fist could hold a stylus.
He leaned back in his chair. “Well, then, Domina,” he said. “What is it that you need me to do?”
“They told me you were quite the direct man,” said Perada. She sounded amused. “I see that they were right.”
“Deal with me honestly, and I deal honestly in return. But until I know what you want from me, there’s nothing else I can say.”
“What I want,” she said, and for the first time hesitated, as if marshaling her arguments. “You’ve made a name for yourself, Captain Metadi, and not merely on Gyffer and Innish-Kyl—the newsreaders on Galcen talk about you as well. They say you are something more than a successful pirate—”
“Privateer,” he corrected. “I bear letters of marque and reprisal.”
A whole sheaf of them, in fact, from the Citizen-Assembly on Gyffer and a host of other sources, including the Galcenian Council and the Highest of Khesat—and Veratina Rosselin herself, by way of House Rosselin’s ambassador on Perpayne. But if the young woman across from him didn’t know that, Jos Metadi wasn’t going to tell her. Knowledge was power, and it was never a good idea to give away power to somebody with whom you were trying to strike a deal.
“My apologies, Captain,” Perada said, her expression unruffled. “Privateer. And something more. If the newsreaders don’t lie—and I have excellent sources who say that they do not—you have proven yourself able to meld independent raiders into a fleet and carry the war to the enemy.”

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