On the morning of the fourth day of our second sixday on Boske, I popped onto the bridge of the ship in my dressing gown. The others, already hard at work over their screens, gave me a curious look.
“Forgive my state of undress,” I said, modestly. “Where are the clothes from the cleaner?”
Anstruther pointed toward a locker near the hatch. “In there, sir. I mean, Thomas.”
I flipped open the metal lid and rummaged through it, turning over piles of fresh-smelling uniforms, underthings and dress attire, but the terracotta fabric I sought was not among the garments therein. I turned everything over twice, growing more frustrated by the moment. I groaned.
“Do you seek something in particular, my lord?” Parsons asked, appearing at my elbow like a genie.
“We are invited to the children’s art college today, Parsons,” I said, making yet another search. “I want to wear my Taino tunic. I turned everything in my cabin over looking for it, but it is not there.” Plet and Anstruther exchanged glances. “That expression bodes significant. What has happened to it?”
Parsons took responsibility for replying. “I am sorry to inform you, my lord, that the Taino tunic has fallen apart.”
I was devastated. “What? That was my favorite jacket! How?”
“It seems that the chemical used to cleanse fabrics on this world is incompatible with the artificial thread used to stitch together your tunic. It dissolved. The component parts are no longer united, sir.”
Did he look pleased about it? I couldn’t tell. “Well, can’t we find a tailor to reassemble it?”
“I am afraid that the remaining portions are in sufficiently poor repair to make such an attempt risky, my lord. As the coat was made specifically for you, you might have to return several times to the shop for fittings, and that would draw a good deal of attention. I would not want to make a local sempster responsible for failure, sir. It would reflect ill upon a local merchant if he was not able to rebuild the garment to your specifications, and to you for having them.”
“Oh,” I said, resignedly. I’d have to visit the designer who had made it when I returned to Keinolt. “Well, I have plenty of clothes. I’ll go find something. I also have a coat that represents the Kinago residence. That should go over well.”
Parsons’s expression steeled me for futher bad news.
“I regret to say that has suffered the same fate as the Taino coat.”
“What?” I felt as though I had been stabbed to the heart. “But I have only worn it once!”
“May I suggest this suit, Lord Thomas?” Parsons asked, whisking a folded pile of midnight-blue cloth from behind his back like a conjuring trick. It was a formal suit of clothes, one that would not be out of place on a receiving line.
“How boring,” I said, with a sigh. “I suppose it will do.” I regarded his own costume, one of a self-effacing brown tunic with casual beige trousers. “You’re not wearing that to the show!”
“I am not accompanying you, sir,” Parsons said. “Today I am bound in a different direction.”
I raised an eyebrow. “May I ask where?”
“My hope is to locate Ambassador Ben.”
My heart raced. “She’s here on Boske? You’re sure? I thought there was no mention of her on the Grid.”
“All references to her might have been purged, a lot of them ineptly, in my opinion,” Lt. Plet said, looking pleased with herself, “but they didn’t do anything about this.” She waved a hand across her screen, which opened upon a continental map. Like those of us in the Imperium, the Grid included images constantly updated from satellites circling the stout waist of the planet. At a flick of her finger, the image zoomed in at dizzying speed until we could see streets, bridges and buildings. At the crosshairs in the center was a large field full of space ships. About half were in pieces, no doubt cannibalized for parts, but at one end were the entire recipients for those parts. The crosshairs moseyed about a bit until they lit on a small vessel.
“That looks rather like the CK-M945B,” I remarked. I peered closer. “In fact, it is the same model of Nexus XV. Well done! How did you find it?”
“Computer modeling of all types of vessels used by the diplomatic service,” Plet said. I confessed she deserved to look smug. “It took a while because it’s not on this continent. They were smart enough to move it, but they didn’t change its configuration. All I had to do was match it and keep looking.”
“So where is Madam Ben?” I asked. “Near the ship?”
“Too much chance of discovery. The chances are approximately sixty percent that the missing ambassador is in the habitations of the intruders here in this city-state, in the center of government,” Parsons intoned. “They could not possibly make the transit from orbit every morning, therefore they live on the surface. The modern flitters they use, so different from the heavy ground vehicles operated by the locals, suggest the habitations cannot be far. Therefore, it behooves me to investigate. I would also like to find the shuttle that they do use when they visit their vessel, and link into the computer system. We need data. Lieutenant Plet and Ensign Anstruther will monitor both of us from here.”
“And the other possible forty percent of the location of the ambassador?” I pressed.
“Divided between locations including the Trade Union mother ship, an offsite location, or an unmarked grave, sir,” Parsons said. I gulped.
“Let us hope it is not the last named, Parsons,” I said soberly. “May I come along? I can help. I will back out on the visit to the school.”
Parsons set his eye upon me. I squirmed under its pressure. “My lord, you are the chief means of preventing the captain and his minions from paying too much attention to my absence.”
I was abashed. “Ah, of course. Good hunting. You shall have to relate to us your entire adventure on your return.”
“The intention is that it will not be an adventure,” he said. “Pray keep attention on you, sir. It would assist me if you were a trifle more . . . obvious than usual.”
“You may count upon me to be obvious,” I said. I set the dull blue suit down firmly and went into my cabin. I rummaged through my cases until I extracted a bright scarlet jacket that I had not yet had a chance to wear. I put it on and marched back onto the bridge. The others almost recoiled at first. “There. Isn’t that marvelous? I picked it up at a resort on Leo’s Star.”
“But, sir . . .” Parsons began. “It is nearly incandescent.”
“Ah, ah, ah,” I said, with a waggle of my forefinger. “You are most excellent at going undetected. My talents lie in the opposite direction. You want me to keep all focus upon me. Red cannot help but draw the eye. And look at that fit!” I called the Optique to take a quick 360° image of me. I checked my rear elevation in the viewpad’s screen. “Sartorially splendid!”
“He’s got you there, Commander,” Oskelev said, showing her teeth. “Either you want him to attract attention or you don’t.”
For once, Parsons was at a loss for words. I felt I had stolen a rare march on my mentor. He said nothing more. I added a jaunty scarf at the neck of the gaudy jacket, tucked my viewpad into an inner pocket, and presented myself at the head of the ship’s ramp. A cheer went up from my waiting public. I raised my hand in greeting.
Parsons slipped away into the crowd. I never saw him go.
* * *
The schoolchildren performed as well as one can expect young and marginally talented children to do. As the last one bowed her way off the stage and ducked behind the arching, polished wood proscenium, I added my applause to the heartfelt acclaim from the host of parents on hand. We all sat on tiny chairs, but the discomfort was minor considering the importance of supporting the arts.
For once, the opinion reporters were absent. Instead, at the lemonade and cookies reception that followed the performance, I was swarmed by student reporters, few of which stood higher than my waist. No question was too unimportant, no questioner too small. After all, these children were the future of the Imperium.
“Mr. Kinago!” they shouted. “Me, first! No, me! I want to know!”
“One at a time,” I ordered, but it was no use. They had no more decorum than any other reporters. They demanded copies of pictures from my cameras and shared theirs with me. The event was a great success on all fronts. Swaying the Boskians, even young ones, to my point of view took little effort. They wanted to go along with me, I could tell. They craved the Imperium’s involvement and protection.
At last, I excused myself. Redius and Anstruther flanked me as I slipped out into the tile-floored hallway toward the rear, where our vehicle waited in the teachers’ facility. The yellow-painted metal door at the end would open only to a code the administrator had given me.
“Restday,” I murmured to myself, entering it into the lock panel. Nothing happened, but I heard sounds of activity on the other side.
“Warm bodies coming your way,” Oskelev said. She was monitoring us from the ship.
“Health chips?” asked Anstruther.
“Nope. Probably Trade Union.”
“We don’t wish to meet them,” I said. “Back to the classroom.”
At a casual forced-march, we scurried up the hallway again. Behind us, I heard the wrench of metal being pried open. I glanced back in an offhanded fashion to see half a dozen men in Cluster uniforms. They looked awkward in their false tattoos. I gave them a blithe wave as we marched out of the front door and into a waiting crowd who clamored as soon as they saw me. Reporters’ cameras came swooping down like flies to a jam jar, followed swiftly by their owners, all shouting over one another.
“I have never before found safety in numbers to be as true as in this place,” I said under my breath to my companions. I beamed at my adult public. “Now, who has the first question?”
* * *
Parsons strode toward the underground light rail station, having ascertained its coordinates from the on-Grid city map. The location of the quarters occupied by the intruders had also been bookmarked, by protesters who objected to their presence on the homeworld. It was a trifle surprising that the indicators had not been removed by Sgarthad’s people, but it marked the arrogance that Parsons had observed in the invaders. It made the first part of his task simple. The subsequent portions would be less so. The missing ambassador was unlikely to be in or immediately adjacent to the habitation. Nor would it be easy to break encoding on the Trade Union computers, but it was vital to obtain as much information on their motives as possible. His studies of the last few days had borne some fruit, but not enough. Sgarthad was careful not to allow access to his databases from casual perusal from any point on Boske.
Parsons descended the stairs. His dull-colored painted tattoos and nondescript suit of clothes caused the casual onlooker’s eye to skip off for more interesting sights. He also carried a workman’s overalls in a briefcase, in case he needed to coax his way past nosy neighbors or guards left behind. The enormous orbiting ship had only a skeleton crew on board, Ensign Anstruther had discovered on scanning from space and listening to their transmissions. Such data were lost on Lord Thomas and the young staff accompanying him. It indicated that much of the ship’s complement had been deployed to other duties since its arrival, for example, the spotter that had detected the Imperium scout inbound when they emerged near the transponder beacon station at the west periphery of the black hole before making the final jump to Portent’s Star. The six guard ships that had escorted them from the heliopause and been on patrol in that quadrant and converged on the news of their arrival had undoubtedly also been conveyed from the Trade Union in the belly of the Marketmaker. All very well thought out and organized. The Trade Union was making itself at home, but the number of ships did not suggest an occupying force. Most curious. He hoped his correspondent had more information.
He paid for a ticket and went to stand on the platform. Only a few commuters were present at that hour. A train rushed almost noiselessly into the station along the stone trench in the floor. The car, brightly lit with narrow bench seats, nearest him was empty. As he was about to board it, a hard object pressed itself against his kidney.
“Into the tunnel,” a hoarse voice whispered.
He started to turn to look, but his assailant’s other forearm flattened against his shoulders and the back of his head, preventing them from moving. Parsons realized there must be no security cameras in the station. He moved toward the dark arch at the end of the platform. The train rushed away in the opposite direction. No assistance would come from it or the patrons who were already ascending the stairs thirty meters away.
No matter. He was more than capable of defending himself. As soon as they passed into the gloom, Parsons stepped backwards with one foot, catching his opponent behind the heel with his toe. Instead of falling, the man stepped forward on that foot between Parsons’s legs and shoved his head down, pressing the hard object to Parsons’s temple. Parsons countered by crossing his wrists and knocking upward under the other man’s hand. The object, a tapered silver cylinder with a black plastic handle, went skidding over the stone floor. It was a tranquilizer gun, of a type used by veterinarians. The man’s objectives must be capture and interrogation. Parsons crouched, hands in defensive array. The other, a slender man in his twenties with scarlet and gold tattoos, assumed the same pose. Parsons sprang at his would-be captor. He must disable him or render him unconscious as quickly as possible. The man jumped at him. He aimed a flat-handed strike at Parsons, aiming for the shoulder. Parsons slipped nimbly to the right. He angled his palm upward for the man’s solar plexus. The man dodged. His long face crumpled with pain, but he went for simultaneous arm and leg sweeps. Parsons caught the arm and turned to throw his opponent. The man rolled over Parsons’s back and landed on his feet, hands crooked into claws. They exchanged a flurry of blows, each countering the other expertly. Parsons tilted his head to the left, narrowly avoiding an incapacitating strike. He flung himself backwards, took a breath, and prepared to wade in again. His opponent regarded him with shock.
“Who sent you?” the young man demanded.
“I am a visitor,” Parsons said, in aggrieved and innocent tones. “Why have you assaulted me?”
“But those moves! You were trained in the same unarmed combat as I was. Do you know . . . Mr. Frank?”
Parsons allowed a tiny smile to touch his lips. He straightened and tugged down the hem of his tunic. He activated the small gray device in his pocket. No one else would hear them now. “I believe you sent him a message.”
The young man relaxed and stood at his gangly-limbed ease. “I did, as it happened. Please, how may I help?”
* * *
Sgarthad intercepted me in the marketplace, where I was giving an interview to a gruff old gentleman in dusty robes and peaked eyebrows. DeKarn had assured me that he was one of the important opinionmakers, and was not easily swayed by words. When the old gentleman bowed suddenly, I spun to find my nemesis at my shoulder.
“How nice to find you here, my lord,” Sgarthad said. “Busy day?”
“Busy but enjoyable,” I assured him. I took in his escort, five men and women in ochre-colored uniforms and faces like blobs of dough. Was everyone in the Trade Union ugly but Sgarthad?
The captain took my arm. “Come have lunch with me. I would relish a chance to get to know you better. May I offer you a tour of the city?”
“I’ve already had several,” I said, apologetically. The man’s assumption of authority annoyed me. “Civic groups and so on.”
He raised a tapering eyebrow. “Ah. Perhaps I can tempt you with a tour of the Marketmaker. It’s the very latest model of long-range merchant ship. We always say we can pack a small moon on board.”
“I’d enjoy that,” I said, politely though privately I would enjoy it more without him. “But another day. I have an appointment to attend a gallery opening.”
“Then let us have lunch and I will escort you there,” Sgarthad boomed, slapping me on the back. “I know a fine little place. They always reserve the best table for me and my friends!” I winced. I found him overbearing and blowhardish. If sales required any subtlety, he would have been a failure.
Sgarthad escorted me into his open-topped vehicle, driven by a shovel-faced brute whose collar barely fastened around his thick neck. The captain and I stood on a platform in the rear.
“So the public can see us better,” he said.
Looking very uneasy about the arrangement, my staff followed in our car. Redius sat beside the driver. Nesbitt and Oskelev were behind him, weapons unlocked but kept in their laps.
We pulled away from the marketplace, turned right and out onto the main boulevard. A crowd with banners to wave already lined the long, wide street. I suspect that Sgarthad had set up this demonstration to show me how well-liked and accepted he was. In fact, he had considerable numbers of fans. Most of the people lined up on the curb seemed sincere as they shouted and waved to him.
“Sgarthad!” they cried. One woman held up a baby and made it wave to him. Sgarthad, grinning boyishly, accepted it as his due. Then, the crowd saw me.
The cheers for the captain died away, as they looked from one of us to the other. Then the shouts went up again.
“Kinago! Kinago! Kinago!”
“Hurray for the Imperium!”
“They got my name from the Grid,” I said, with creditable self-deprecation. Sgarthad did not like it, I could tell. I offered an apology. “It is only because I am a novelty. We bare-faced ones. There are so few of us that they can’t help but notice. Listen, they are calling your name as well.”
“Yes,” Sgarthad growled. From then on he continued to wave, but his expression was sulky. I took up the slack, smiling and waving to a steadily increasing throng. Sgarthad moved away from me and activated his communications link. I ostentatiously gave him privacy, but my staff was on alert.
“Thomas, can you hear me?” Anstruther’s voice said in my ear. “I’m monitoring a call from your location. You’re in danger. They’ve got something going, and you’re the target.”
“I doubt it,” I said, blowing a kiss to a young woman jumping up and down on the curb. “They wouldn’t dare touch me. I am the emperor’s cousin! They haven’t shown much concern for the Imperium. He blasted me off the stage at my speech. What could he do to me out here in public?”