"Nossir," Sten said. And as he said it, he knew he was doomed.
The Eternal Emperor was right. There was no way he could refuse him this—or the rest that would follow.
The victory celebrations aboard the Bhor fleet lasted all the way back to the Lupus Cluster.
Cind kept a close watch on Sten. He joined in all the toasts and the parties and kept up with his hard-drinking friends, Otho and Kilgour. But in repose, his face became a mask, revealing nothing. She knew him better now. She could sense the thoughts churning through his mind-but what those thoughts were, she had no notion.
Cind saw him jolt up once in the middle of a toast to the Eternal Emperor and look up at the portrait on the ship's banquet compartment wall. He stared at it for a long time, then shook his head and downed his drink. A moment later he was laughing and talking with his friends again.
But Cind would remember that look for a long time-and wonder what was on Sten's mind.
Malperin and Lovett sat in a cell aboard the Emperor's personal yacht, the Normandie. It might have appeared a rather comfortable suite, but the doors were locked and guarded, any conceivable or potential weapons had been removed, and there were sensors monitoring their every breath.
The fog they had been in when Sten captured them had begun to lift.
They had been told they were to be tried. The trial would take place on Newton. They would be offered the finest defense counsels in the Empire, and an adequate time to prepare whatever defense they chose.
Cautiously, mindful of the monitors, the two had begun discussing what they should do, what defense might be offered. They had begun to use circumlocutions as they planned, and, against logic, to whisper.
There had been six of them once-determined to reach for the highest power of all. And, for a moment, they had held it.
Now... forget the deaths and forget the cell. Life is to be lived, Malperin said. Lovett managed a small smile.
There was a tap outside, and the compartment door opened.
A man entered. Neither tall nor stocky, he looked to be in good physical shape. He was wearing expensive civilian clothes. He was not an ugly man, not a handsome man.
"Gentlebeings," he said softly. "I have been assigned as your escort and aide for the trial. "My name is Venloe."
Mahoney stormed into the Eternal Emperor's private office, spewing obscenities. He held a fiche in his shaking hand.
"Lord, Ian. What happened?"
"Some clottin' drakh-head on the Normandie! Playing God! 'Prisoners managed to escape cell. Found way to lifecraft. Attempted to enter. Security officer tried to apprehend, but was forced to...'
" 'Shot while attemptin' escape!' Christ! Clottin' bastard can't even find an original excuse.
"All that work. Sten'll kill that clottin' moron—but I'll have beaten him to it! Jesus Mary Mother on a grav-sled! I'll crucify the clot! Have his guts for a winding sheet." He broke off. "I do not believe this. Clot!"
The Emperor picked up the fiche, put it in a viewer, and scanned the decoded message that had been transmitted in the Empire's personal command code.
He scanned it again, then grunted. "Not good, Ian. Not good at all."
"Not good... okay." Mahoney brought himself under control. "You're the boss. How high do we hang this—whoever did this? Not that it matters. What's the spin for damage control?"
The Emperor thought a moment. "None. What happened is what happened. And I'll arrange the proper way to deal with our ambitious gunman. But that's all. No investigation, Mahoney. That's an order." He paused. "So we've lost our war crimes trial. I don't think it matters. There's too much of the privy council's drakh left around for anybody to be much interested in what happened to Malperin and Lovett."
"That's it," Mahoney said incredulously. "Those two just... vanished?"
"Something like that. As I said, what happened is what happened. Pour me a drink, Ian. We'll drink their souls to hell, like Sten's hairy friends say."
Ian stared at the Emperor, then got up and went to a table, where he found the decanter of stregg.
The Eternal Emperor turned his chair and looked out the window at the once-blasted site of his palace, Arundel. Reconstruction had already begun.
Mahoney could not see his face.
The Eternal Emperor smiled.
CHRIS BUNCH is a Ranger—an airborne-qualified Vietnam Vet—who's written about phenomena as varied as the Hell's Angels, the Rolling Stones, and Ronald Reagan. ALLAN COLE grew up in the CIA in odd spots like Okinawa, Cyprus, and Taiwan. He's been a professional chef, investigative reporter, and national news editor of a major West Coast daily newspaper. He's won half a dozen writing awards in the process.
BUNCH AND COLE, friends since high school, have collaborated on everything from the world's worst pornographic novel to over fifty television scripts, as well as a feature movie. This is their second novel.