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Chapter 8.


"Frankel! Good of you to meet me here." Taelin glanced around, verifying that no one else had come with the Station Monitor. His scanners blinked a silver confirmation directly to his retina, showing that all security monitors were also switched off.

"I could hardly do anything else," the Monitor said with a small smile, "given who sent you." He also glanced around, but his was the look of a security man uncomfortable with having to be the sole source of protection for one of the Five Families. "I'm not clear, however, on the reason for your secrecy."

"Partly to throw off anyone else who might be watching what's going on," Taelin answered, slinging his travel bag over his shoulder, "but mostly to surprise Sasham."

Nissen Frankel nodded, the black and silver of the Monitor uniform emphasizing the somber expression. "He could use a pleasant surprise." There was strain evident on Frankel's face as he said that.

"Something bothering you?"

Frankel wasn't much older than Taelin—he'd been in the same survival class with Taelin and Sasham, back when—and so it was worrisome to see the wince on his tanned face, the set of the jaw, and the sideways, almost guilty look in his eyes. "I… shouldn't be saying things like that."

Of course. Taelin almost kicked himself. It was sometimes hard to remember that much as this looked like the old Nissen Frankel—the one who'd helped Taelin fill Sasham and Jearsen's cabin with snow, who'd dragged Taelin along to go air-surfing when he was worrying about his last set of exams, and who'd almost gotten killed because he caught some of the upperclassmen running a smuggling operation through the school—it wasn't, exactly. "Conditioning giving you problems?"

"I know it's the way it has to be. Individual loyalties cannot be allowed to influence a Monitor's judgment. But… I owe him much, personally, and he has risked his life for many others before."

Not the least of them being me, Taelin thought, nodding.

Frankel sighed, a sigh carrying both pain and frustration. "And in this case, he may have saved the entire station. So in all justice he deserves more than ordinary consideration. But that touches on my personal feelings, and…" He gave a hands-up shrug.

"Well, try to think no more on it. You could go for a refresher conditioning sequence, but that often blunts empathy for a while."

Frankel was leading him down a side corridor. "And in this job, that can be a very dangerous thing. The imageplay concept of a Monitor is a passionless, logical, almost infallible executor of the law, but someone like that—"

"—misses the most simple and obvious motives. Yes, I know. We need human monitors who are perfect patriots, not perfect machines. The Five came up with that idea—in fact, it was a Mel'Tasne that first argued the point."

"Sorry, sir."

"Don't sir me, Nissen! I'm—"

"One of the Five Great Families, on a direct mission for the Emperor and Prime Monitor Shagrath, a mission so secret that once you've left it's even odds that I'll have to wipe the records of your visit, and one in ten that I'll have to wipe my memory of the visit, sir." They stepped into a narrower access conduit, barely wide enough for the two of them to pass through.

Taelin blinked. "That high priority?"

"Emperor's balls, sir, don't you even look at the orders you're given?"

"Er… well, not usually, I get given my directions verbally, and…" Taelin looked appropriately chastised.

"And there you go with the big pretty helpless eyes—you know, you do that better than your sister did."

"That's because Mishel's bigger than I am."

"Still doesn't fool me." They reached a door and Frankel stopped. "If you pass through here, you're well past any checkpoints, and your overrides should let you go on without anyone noticing anything odd. Do you need anything else?"

"No, I think I can handle the rest, as long as you leave my ship untouched. Well, refueled, but otherwise hands off."

"Understood." Frankel allowed himself one more personal smile and gripped Taelin's shoulder. "Thanks for coming. And tell Lukh I said hi."

"Count on it."

Taelin stepped through the door and sealed it behind him. He was standing in a gently-curving, broad corridor. Red stripe; Midring, then, which makes sense with how far we walked. Must have been down Radial … um… four, so if I go this way…

A short while later he was approaching officer's quarters; he sent the code-ping ahead, negating security lock as he passed through. A query to Tangia's computers showed him the location of Sasham's quarters.

The doors slid open at his approach; he left them open and stepped in, looking around.

At first glance, everything was normal. The bed was in perfect order, Sasham's vya-shadu swords resting in their traditional place just above. The symbol of the Empire—six jewels around a larger seventh—above the access terminal as usual, with Sasham's small shelf of actual paper books next to it. Taelin could see that, as before, most of the books were of the Seeker tradition, including a very well-worn Book of the Fall.

But other details… the usual imagecubes of his training years were dark, the scene window of the room showing only the blowing snowscape of Varan's home on Korealis, not the usual changing scenes. A faint film of dust rested on the vya-shadu—something Taelin couldn't have imagined happening, given that the ancient twin-swords were not just part of Sasham's Tor martial art training but a religious symbol to a Seeker of Sasham's particular sect. The dust meant that his old friend had felt unworthy to even perform the Eight-day ritual sword-dance.

Worse than I thought. We never believed Diorre and Sasham would get together, but somehow I always knew if it did happen they'd be perfect together. And if he's only been here a few months… Demons, I can't even get my head around it! What would I be like if Treyuusei died? Worse, maybe. But then, he saw her die…

Taelin set his jaw—noticing in Sasham's mirror that this was perhaps a less impressive and threatening expression when your face was more heart-shaped than square. Doesn't matter. I have to do something to snap him out of this … despair that he's obviously in. And figure out what else is bothering him.

He locked down the alert functions of Tangia system so Sasham wouldn't get any pingbacks from attempts to trace him, and checked his friend's location. Doing some maintenance with… Zakhla. Ah, yeah, that Chakron engineer who worked with him on the old Vanderandi. Sash must have had him transferred here when he came. Okay, he should be there at least a little longer. Now, let's see what the current psych evals say…

It didn't take long to get the picture, and it was a pretty ugly one. Poor Sasham! Words didn't fail Taelin often, but he didn't know what to say about this mess. And we still need him back at Oro—and he needs to have his head on a lot better than he does now.

The system alerted him that Sasham was on the move. He's going to be here soon! Now what—

The sudden urgency distilled all his concerns into inspiration. He knew exactly what to do.

Now, if he'll just forgive me afterwards…

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