The starlines collapsed into stars, and the Imperial Star Destroyer Dominator had arrived. Standing on the command walkway, his hands clasped stiffly behind his back, Captain Worhven glared at the misty planet floating in the blackness directly ahead and wondered what in blazes he and his ship were doing here.
For these were not good times. The Emperor’s sudden dissolution of the Imperial Senate had sent dangerous swells of uncertainty throughout the galaxy, which played into the hands of radical groups like the so-called Rebel Alliance. At the same time, criminal organizations like Black Sun and the Hutt syndicates openly flaunted the law, buying and selling spice, stolen merchandise, and local and regional officials alike.
Even worse, Palpatine’s brand-new toy, the weapon that was supposed to finally convince both insurgents and lawbreakers that the Empire was deadly serious about taking them down, had inexplicably been destroyed at Yavin. Worhven still hadn’t heard an official explanation for that incident.
Evil times indeed. And evil times called for a strong and massive response. The minute the word came in from Yavin, Imperial Center should have ordered a full Fleet deployment, concentrating its efforts on the most important, the most insubordinate, and the most jittery systems. It was the classic response to crisis, a method that dated back thousands of years, and by all rights and logic the Dominator should have been at the forefront of any such deployment.
Instead, Worhven and his ship had been pressed into mule cart duty.
“Ah--Captain,” a cheery voice boomed behind him.
Worhven took a deep, calming breath. “Lord d’Ashewl,” he replied, making sure to keep his back to the other while he forced his expression into something more politically proper for the occasion.
It was well he’d started rearranging his face when he did. Barely five seconds later d’Ashewl came to a stop beside him, right up at his side instead of stopping the two steps back that Worhven demanded of even senior officers until he gestured them forward.
But that was hardly a surprise. What would a fat, stupid, accidentally rich member of Imperial Center’s upper court know of ship’s protocol?
A rhetorical question. The answer, of course, was nothing.
But if d’Ashewl didn’t understand basic courtesy, Worhven did. And he would treat his guest with the proper respect. Even if it killed him. “My lord,” he said politely, turning to face the other. “I trust you slept well.”
“I did,” d’Ashewl said, his eyes on the planet ahead. “So that’s Wukkar out there, is it?”
“Yes, my lord,” Worhven said, resisting the urge to wonder aloud if d’Ashewl thought the Dominator might have somehow drifted off course during ship’s night. “As per your orders.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” d’Ashewl said, craning his neck a little. “It’s just so hard to tell from this distance. Most worlds out there look distressingly alike.”
“Yes, my lord,” Worhven repeated, again resisting the words that so badly wanted to come out. That was the kind of comment made only by the inexperienced or blatantly stupid. With d’Ashewl, it was probably a toss-up.
“But if you say it’s Wukkar, then I believe it,” d’Ashewl continued. “Have you compiled the list of incoming yachts that I asked for?”
Worhven suppressed a sigh. Not just mule cart duty, but handmaiden duty as well. “The comm officer has it,” he said, turning his head and gesturing toward the starboard crew pit. Out of the corner of his eye he saw now that he and d’Ashewl weren’t alone: d’Ashewl’s young manservant, Dayja, had accompanied his superior and was standing a respectful half dozen steps back along the walkway.
At least one of the pair knew something about proper protocol.
“Excellent, excellent,” d’Ashewl said, rubbing his hands together. “There’s a wager afoot, Captain, as to which of our group will arrive first and which will arrive last. Thanks to you and your magnificent ship, I stand to win a great deal of money.”
Worhven felt his lip twist. A ludicrous and pointless wager, to match the Dominator’s ludicrous and pointless errand. It was nice to know that in a universe on the edge of going mad, there was still ironic symmetry to be found.
“You’ll have your man relay the data to my floater,” d’Ashewl continued. “My man and I shall leave as soon as the Dominator reaches orbit.” He cocked his head. “Your orders were to remain in the region in the event that I needed further transport, were they not?”
The captain allowed his hands, safely out of d’Ashewl’s sight at his sides, to curl into frustrated fists. “Yes, my lord.”
“Good,” d’Ashewl said cheerfully. “Lord Toorfi has been known to suddenly change his mind on where the games are to continue, and if he does, I need to be ready to once again beat him to the new destination. You’ll be no more than three hours away at all times, correct?”
“Yes, my lord,” Worhven said. Fat, stupid, and a cheat besides. Clearly, all the others involved in this vague high-stakes gaming tournament had arrived at Wukkar via their own ships. Only d’Ashewl had had the supreme gall to talk someone on Imperial Center into letting him borrow an Imperial Star Destroyer for the occasion.
“But for now, all I need is for your men to prepare to launch my floater,” d’Ashewl continued. “After that, you may take the rest of the day off. Perhaps the rest of the month as well. One never knows how long old men’s stamina and credits will last, eh?”
Without waiting for a reply--which was just as well, because Worhven didn’t have any that he was willing to share--the rotund man turned and waddled back along the walkway toward the aft bridge. Dayja waited until he’d passed, then dropped into step the prescribed three paces behind him.
Worhven watched until the pair had passed beneath the archway and into the aft bridge turbolift, just to make sure they were truly gone. Then, unclenching his teeth, he turned to the comm officer. “Signal Hangar Command,” he ordered. “Our passenger is ready to leave.”
He threw a final glower at the aft bridge. Take the day off, indeed. Enough condescending idiocy like that from the Empire’s ruling class, and Worhven would be sorely tempted to join the Rebellion himself. “And tell them to make it quick,” he added. “I don’t want Lord d’Ashewl or his ship aboard a single millisecond longer than necessary.”
“I should probably have you whipped,” d’Ashewl commented absently.
Dayja half turned in the floater’s command chair to look over his shoulder. “Excuse me?” he asked.
“I said I should probably have you whipped,” d’Ashewl repeated, gazing at his datapad as he lazed comfortably on the luxurious couch in the lounge just behind the cockpit.
“Any particular reason?”
“Not really,” d’Ashewl said. “But it’s becoming the big thing among the upper echelon of the court these days, and I’d hate to be left out of the truly important trends.”
“Ah,” Dayja said. “I trust these rituals aren’t done in public?”
“Oh, no, the sessions are quite private and secretive,” d’Ashewl assured him. “But that’s a good point. Unless we happen to meet up with others of my same lofty stature, there really wouldn’t be any purpose.” He considered. “At least not until we get back to Imperial Center. We may want to try it then.”
“Speaking only for myself, I’d be content to put it off,” Dayja said. “It does sound rather pointless.”
“That’s because you have a lower-class attitude,” d’Ashewl chided. “It’s a conspicuous-consumption sort of thing. A demonstration that one has such an overabundance of servants and slaves that he can afford to put one out of commission for a few days merely on a whim.”
“It still sounds pointless,” Dayja said. “Ripping someone’s flesh from his body is a great deal of work. I prefer to have a good reason if I’m going to go to that much effort.” He nodded at the datapad. “Any luck?”
“Unfortunately, the chance cubes aren’t falling in our favor,” d’Ashewl said, tossing the instrument onto the couch beside him. “Our tip-off came just a bit too late. It looks like Qazadi is already here.”
“There were only eight possibilities, and all eight have landed and their passengers dispersed.”
Dayja turned back forward, eyeing the planet rushing up toward them and trying to estimate distances and times. If the yacht carrying their quarry had just landed, there might still be a chance of intercepting him before he went to ground.
“And the latest was over three hours ago,” d’Ashewl added. “So you might as well ease back on the throttle and enjoy the ride.”
Dayja suppressed a flicker of annoyance. “So in other words, we took the Dominator out of service for nothing.”
“Not entirely,” d’Ashewl said. “Captain Worhven had the opportunity to work on his patience level.”
Despite his frustration, Dayja had to smile. “You do play the -pompous-jay role very well.”
“Thank you,” d’Ashewl said. “I’m glad my talents are still of some use to the department. And don’t be too annoyed that we missed him. It would have been nicely dramatic, snatching him out of the sky as we’d hoped. But such a triumph would have come with its own set of costs. For one thing, Captain Worhven would have had to be brought into your confidence, which would have cost you a perfectly good cover identity.”
“And possibly yours?”
“Very likely,” d’Ashewl agreed. “And while the Director has plenty of scoundrel and server identities to pass out, he can slip someone into the Imperial court only so often before the other members catch on. They may be arrogant and pompous, but they’re not stupid. All things considered, it’s probably just as well things have worked out this way.”
“Perhaps,” Dayja said, not entirely ready to concede the point. “Still, he’s going to be harder to get out of Villachor’s mansion than he would have been if we’d caught him along the way.”
“Even so, it will be easier than digging him out of one of Black Sun’s complexes on Imperial Center,” d’Ashewl countered. “Assuming we could find him in that rat hole in the first place.” He gestured toward the viewport. “And don’t think it would have been that easy to pluck him out of space. Think Xizor’s Virago, only scaled up fifty or a hundred times, and you’ll get an idea what kind of nut it would have been to crack.”
“All nuts can be cracked,” Dayja said with a shrug. “All it takes is the right application of pressure.”
“Provided the nutcracker itself doesn’t break in the process,” d’Ashewl said, his voice going suddenly dark. “You’ve never tangled with Black Sun at this level, Dayja. I have. Qazadi is one of the worst, with every bit of Xizor’s craftiness and manipulation.”
“But without the prince’s charm?”
“Joke if you wish,” d’Ashewl rumbled. “But be careful. If not for yourself, for me. I have the ghosts of far too many lost agents swirling through my memory as it is.”
“I understand,” Dayja said quietly. “I’ll be careful.”
“Good.” D’Ashewl huffed out a short puff of air, an affectation Dayja guessed he’d picked up from others of Imperial Center’s elite. “All right. We still don’t know why Qazadi is here: whether he’s on assignment, lying low, or in some kind of disfavor with Xizor and the rest of the upper echelon. If it’s the third, we’re out of luck.”
“As is Qazadi,” Dayja murmured.
“Indeed,” d’Ashewl agreed. “But if it’s one of the first two . . .” He shook his head. “Those files could rock Imperial Center straight out of orbit.”
Which was enough reason all by itself for them to play this whole thing very carefully, Dayja knew. “But we’re sure he’ll be staying at Villachor’s?”
“I can’t see him coming to Wukkar and staying anywhere but the sector chief’s mansion,” d’Ashewl said. “But there may be other possibilities, and it wouldn’t hurt for you to poke around a bit. I’ve downloaded everything we’ve got on Villachor, his people, and the Marblewood Estate for you. Unfortunately, there isn’t much.”
“I guess I’ll have to get inside and see the place for myself,” Dayja said. “I’m thinking the upcoming Festival of Four Honorings will be my best bet.”
“If Villachor follows his usual pattern of hosting one of Iltarr City’s celebrations at Marblewood,” d’Ashewl warned. “It’s possible that with Qazadi visiting he’ll pass that role to someone else.”
“I don’t think so,” Dayja said. “High-level Black Sun operatives like to use social celebrations as cover for meetings with offworld contacts and to set up future opportunities. In fact, given the timing of Qazadi’s visit, it’s possible he’s here to observe or assist with some particularly troublesome problem.”
“You’ve done your homework,” d’Ashewl said. “Excellent. Do bear in mind, though, that the influx of people also means Marblewood’s security force will be on heightened alert.”
“Don’t worry,” Dayja said calmly. “You can get through any door if you know the proper way to knock. I’ll just keep knocking until I find the pattern.”
According to Wukkar’s largest and most influential fashion magazines, all of which were delighted to run extensive stories on Avrak Villachor whenever he paid them to do so, Villachor’s famed Marblewood Estate was one of the true showcases of the galaxy. It was essentially a country manor in the midst of Iltarr City: a walled-off expanse of landscaped grounds surrounding a former governor’s mansion built in classic High Empress Teta style.
The more breathless of the commentators liked to remind their readers of Villachor’s many business and philanthropic achievements and awards, and predicted that there would be more such honors in the future. Other commentators, the unpaid ones, countered with more ominous suggestions that Villachor’s most likely achievement would be to suffer an early and violent death.
Both predictions were probably right; the thought flicked through Villachor’s mind as he stood at the main entrance to his mansion and watched the line of five ordinary-looking landspeeders float through the gate and into his courtyard. In fact, there was every chance that he was about to face one or the other of those events right now.
The only question was which one.
Proper etiquette on Wukkar dictated that a host be waiting beside the landspeeder door when a distinguished guest emerged. In this case, though, that would be impossible. All five landspeeders had dark-tint windows, and there was no way to know which one his mysterious visitor was riding in. If Villachor guessed wrong, not only would he have violated prescribed manners, but he would also look like a fool.
And so he paused on the bottom step until the landspeeders came to a well-practiced simultaneous halt. The doors of all but the second vehicle opened and began discharging the passengers, most of them hard-faced human men who would have fit in seamlessly with Villachor’s own cadre of guards and enforcers. They spread out into a loose and casual-looking circle around the vehicles, and one of them murmured something into the small comlink clip on his collar. The final landspeeder’s doors opened--
Villachor felt his throat tighten as he caught his first glimpse of gray-green scales above a colorful beaded tunic. This was no human. This was a Falleen.
Copyright © 2013 by Timothy Zahn. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.