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Chapter 6.


"I can't believe they're calling me in today. What could possibly so sinking important, as Sash used to say?" Even as he recognized that he was sounding too petulant for a member of the Five Families, Taelin was fumbling with his cross-sash.

"I have no idea, Taelin," his wife Treyuusei said, pulling his golden hair back into the currently-favored double-tail style and sealing two jeweled ribbons onto it, "but you know Lukhas. If he's interrupting us just before we go on vacation—"

"—he'll have a very, very good reason. Of course he will. But…" he threw a longing glance out the window at his sleek silver-and-crystal ship, the Valabacal, waiting on the Mel'Tasne private pad, "… I was so looking forward to Hyarani." He looked at the slender form of Treyuusei, who was now in front of him and bent slightly over, fiddling with the longvest closures to orient everything just right.

She caught the direction of his gaze. "Of course you were. Always looking forward and a bit down, aren't you?"

"Well, you can't complain about ours being a passionless political matching. Even if we were a political match to begin with." She gave him a quick kiss of agreement as he headed out the door towards his Streetwing.

Once he was in the air, with the latest by Sainji's Answer filling the cabin with haunting sound, Taelin found himself back to his original question. What could they possibly want with him that was so important? He had responsibilities as a member of the Five Families, yes, but there just weren't too many that were nearly so urgent; that was what Lukhas was for, actually; his older brother had gone into Intelligence to do the urgent family work.

No point in chasing myself in circles; I'll know soon enough. The immense mass of Silan-Luria Base loomed up before him, surrounded in shields, armed with enough firepower to obliterate entire fronts of warships. He pinged forward with his headware comm, and the security computers recognized one of the Five Families, cancelling incipient alerts, opening a passage direct to the Intelligence complex.

Lukhas was there even as the Streetwing touched down. "Well, about time you got here!"

"I came as fast as I could, Lukh! I'd just woken up when you pinged and overrode. And I'm missing the start of my vacation for this."

His brother—dark-haired, like their father had been and like their sister Mishel—gave an apologetic smile, but Taelin could see it was a perfunctory gesture, and his brother's mind was very much elsewhere. "Okay, what is it, Lukh?"

"Wait. This rooftop isn't secure."

That stopped Taelin from asking any more questions. Not secure? The top of the Intelligence private pad, in the middle of the most powerful base in the Empire? And my brother thinks it's not secure?

A few minutes later they were in Lukhas' office, a large suite whose central room's window looked out across much of Silan-Luria; it was a spectacular view. Lukhas passed his hand over several controls; the exterior view took on the slight rainbow sheen that meant that any radiation—light, infra-red, ultra-violet, even radio—leaving the room would be scrambled by a DD field. "Now we're secure."

"And the urgency is…?"

"The Zchorada hit Tangia, and hit it hard. We just got the reports in this morning, and it's bad."

Tangia? "Seven Above, Lukh—they didn't get Sasham!"

"No, no, Sasham's not dead." Lukhas didn't look happy, though, and his next sentence told why. "But… they did get Diorre."

"What…? Jearsen? Diorre Jearsen was on Tangia?" Taelin felt his stomach contract to an acid knot and heard uncharacteristic tears in his own voice, tears he fought back. But it was almost impossible not to cry. He hadn't missed the significance of his brother's saying that Sasham Varan wasn't dead, instead of just saying Sash was fine. Two of my best and oldest friends outside the Five Families, and one's dead and the other's… hurt? "How's Sash taking it?"

"Can't say for sure," Lukhas said slowly, but his eyes were focused on the angled display desk in front of him, and their dark-blue gaze refused to meet Taelin's. He heard Lukh take a breath as though bracing himself. "Summary says that … well, Sasham and Diorre were seen together a lot in the couple of months he was there."

He felt stupid, because for a minute he didn't quite get what his brother was trying to say, and said, "Well, of course they were. I think the last time Sash had seen her was—"

And then of course he understood, and he dropped into a chair covering his face. "Oh, demons. We used to joke about that, but it happened? And now she's dead? I didn't think anything could kill her."

"A boarding party of thirty Zchorada and you're wearing unpowered armor means you're going to die." Lukhas looked up, and he could tell that this had hit his brother almost as hard as him. But you weren't the one Sasham saved from kattasi or worse. I owe him—and Jearsen—more than I can repay, and now one debt's gone where I can't even follow.

He focused on the current situation. "You didn't call me out here just to give me that news, though. That's sad, but it's not secret."

Lukhas grinned bitterly. "You're not stupid, no matter what people think when they look at that pretty face. No, there's a lot more to it than that."

"Treyuusei likes my pretty face."

"And that makes you luckier than me, so I guess I shouldn't talk." That was, Taelin knew, an exaggeration. Lukhas didn't have Taelin's delicate features, but his sharp-planed face and charm gave him plenty of opportunities; he'd managed to evade getting pledged, mainly because Taelin and Treyuusei had surprised everyone by being the first of the Mel'Tasne children to set the date for the marriage.

"How'd they manage to hit Tangia at all?"

"We're still analyzing it, but the preliminary evaluations of the surviving command staff suggest that it was a coordinated assault using months of preparation; probably they suborned civilian transport automation to seed the area slowly with Dimension-Distortion nanodust to cloud the approach sensors, plus mess with the ability to track smaller craft by any automated defenses. But the important thing isn't the attack, but what happened with Sasham and Diorre."

Taelin just looked at him, waiting for the charge to go off.

"When the assault hit," Lukhas said after a moment, "Sasham and Diorre were the only ones in that sector of the station—Outring One. You're familiar with the design?"

"Um… Tangia. Oh, that's a Shillanae class station. Yes." The design was fairly simple, Hub (sometimes called "Inring", even though it wasn’t really a ring), Midring, and Outring, with connecting spoke-like Radials, like ripples from a stone in a pond. "They were the only people in that sector? But where were… oh. No wonder the Zchorada waited. Fallday rehearsals."

"Right. One breaching unit hit there almost as soon as any of the sensors got off an alarm. If Sasham hadn't been there and able to code open the lock of the secondary armory, we'd almost certainly have lost the whole station. He and Diorre held them off for more than half an hour while the rest of the station dealt with the other breaches—two dozen all told—and the defense forces finally chased off the actual warships with some unexpected civilian assistance." He closed his eyes and sighed again. "But before that happened, a second breacher came up next to the first, and that one had a psi in it—a powerful one."

Taelin felt himself go white. "Oh demons…"

"Yes." Lukhas nodded slowly. "Diorre was in light armor so no shield. Sasham was in his full Navy kit, but…" His eyes shifted suddenly to a point over Taelin's shoulder.

"…But," another voice continued from behind Taelin, making him jump, "its shield was not sufficient to ward off the psi in question."

Taelin twisted around and looked up. The silver-shining glasses—which were almost never removed—and the black-and-silver uniform were instantly recognizable, and Taelin immediately stood. "Prime Monitor!"

The Prime Monitor waved him back to his seat. The smile, intended to be friendly and comforting, didn't quite succeed with Taelin; the blank silver of Prime Monitor Shagrath's gaze made the smile look almost like that of an automaton, something smiling by rote and mechanical instruction, not from true feeling. "Do not trouble yourself, young Mel'Tasne. I am but a servant, not of the Five."

"And so Sasham—"

"—proceeded to do his duty in spectacular fashion, holding Radial One for the next fifteen minutes until not one of the breaching force was left alive and reinforcements arrived; he then lapsed into a coma."

Taelin blinked and felt momentarily dizzy. "But you said his shield failed."

This smile was not meant to be comforting—and wasn't. "And so it did."

The acid knot in his gut tightened with horror. "But … that would mean that Sasham Varan is a PSI?"

"One would think so, yes." The Prime Monitor was no longer smiling. "But we obtained his Exsheath combat records and it appears that the situation is something far more interesting—unique, in fact." The unsettling smile was back, and from the corner of his eye, Taelin saw his brother simply watching, almost expressionless. "Which is why we have a very, very specific need for you."

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