We were all glad to get going again, to finally be on the way to something that might seem like some kind of a conclusion or at least a moving on to different chases on different planets with different bounty hunters and different evil politicians plotting behind our backs.
I had no hope of keeping the ship Irial had supposedly given me since I had learned the truth about his involvement with my kidnapping. Although that might be a good bribe. I keep the ship; I keep my mouth shut. But given that lack of hope, I hadnít officially named the ship yet and even refused to call it by its intended name. I couldnít actually register it anyway, at least not until I was cleared of all the charges against me. Everyone else called the ship Blue Avaís Angel. I tried not to call it anything at all. I tried not to think of it as my own. But it was. It hadnít been nearly as cooperative for Shane as it had been for me. Like any piece of machinery operated by one person for any length of time, it started to take on some of my personality quirks. It was sarcastic, and it swore a lot. That was on top of the personality it developed all on its own.
The second time around, nothing deterred us from our course to Teatree, but having taken that initial detour, it took us a little longer to get there. I kept it moving at close to top speed and left the cloaking device on. Several times, we spotted bounty huntersí ships, but they couldnít see us or detect us on radar, so we moved right past them without even firing a warning shot. Thereíd be time for fighting later.
I was starting to have second thoughts about taking this mess to the senior Falkenberg. I knew he had the connections to do something, and I knew he deserved to know that his eldest son was a conniving little prick. But I wasnít sure that the right thing would get done. I wasnít even sure what the right thing was. If I let Shane be punished for what he did, then I needed to be punished for what I did. I just didnít want to be punished. There was a way around all of it. I just hadnít figured out what that was yet. Give me a little more time, and Iíd come up with something.
When we landed, the oldest Falkenberg daughter, Valeska, greeted us. She was a tall, slender woman with brown hair a shade lighter than Danelís and blue grey eyes, the same shade and shape as mine. She and Danel were close enough in age to not like each other very much, and they acted accordingly, giving each other a compulsory embrace and not much more. Danel had suggested that the rest of the crew stay on board while he and I talked to his father. The only one who had a problem with this was Regan, so I made her promise to be good and brought her along.
"Father told me you were bringing guests," Valeska said.
"Yes," Danel said. "This is Talon Konstantine and his daughter Regan."
"Itís a pleasure to meet you both."
"Likewise," I said. I felt awkward, meeting my sister for the first time and pretending like I wasnít related to her at all.
She looked at me for a long time, too long. "You look very familiar. Have we met?"
"I doubt it."
"Of course not. Where would I have met someone like you?"
A sharp look from Danel kept me from making any uncouth remarks.
"Well, letís not keep Father waiting."
Valeska turned on her heel and walked up the path towards the massive estate grounds. Regan grabbed my hand and walked silently beside me with her fingers in her mouth.
I almost expected the place to feel somewhat familiar. I looked around, waiting for something to click, for a hall to remind me of home, for a painting to feel like mine. It didnít happen. The more I thought about it, the more I was glad I didnít remember the place. I didnít belong there. I never would have belonged there.
Valeska led us into a large, plush sitting room decorated in burgundy and gold with plenty of heavy velvet and tacky tassels. We waited for a while as Valeska went to get Gervaso. A servant came in with drinks and cookies for Regan. And then we waited some more.
Regan crawled up into my lap with a half eaten cookie. "Daddy, I donít like this place," she said.
"I donít either. We wonít be here long," I said.
"It feels ...flat. Like itís just a picture."
"Thatís about all it is," Danel said. "Thatís why I knew I wouldnít spend my whole life here. I donít know how the others do it."
"You were born here, werenít you, Daddy?"
"I guess so. But letís pretend I wasnít. Itís a lot more interesting to be born somewhere else."
Ten minutes later, Gervaso came in followed by a mousy looking attendant who carried a stack of letters. Danel stood up and shot me a look that told me I should do the same. I didnít. "Itís Grandpa," Regan whispered.
"Hush," I said.
"So nice of you to come home for a change, Danel," Gervaso said. "Your mother misses you terribly. Please make a point to see her before you go gallivanting around the universe again."
"Valeska said you brought friends."
"Yes. This is Talon Konstantine and his daughter Regan."
Gervaso didnít even look at me. He turned to the attendant, pulled a letter off the stack and read it over briefly. "Just send this one right back. If they canít even address a letter properly, I refuse to read it." He glanced up. "Konstantine, is it? I believe Iíve heard the name."
"Father, we need to speak with you about Irial," Danel said.
"Irial? Why, what has that fool done now? Oh, wait. Yes, I remember now. Konstantine is the pilot heís been so interested in lately because of the attempt on Senator Blackstone. Let me guess. Irial put someone up to killing Blackstone so he could become emperor."
"Itís far more complicated than that."
"Well, son, I donít have time to talk now. Iím preparing for tonightís annual ball. If you wish an audience, I might have a moment then. Please, go see your mother. And take your friend. Your mother hasnít seen a child in years. You know she adores children."
"But Father Ė "
"Not now, Danel. Iíll see you this evening. Your friend is more than welcome to attend, provided he can find the proper attire."
"Itís about Rowen."
At that, Gervaso stopped. He took two steps towards Danel and slapped him across the mouth. "Donít you ever say that name in my presence again. Your brother is dead. You know that. Donít dishonor the dead by telling tales about them."
Gervaso turned and stalked out of the room.
"Is it wrong for me to want to beat the shit out of my father?" I asked.
"In this case, I donít think so," Danel said. "Just count yourself fortunate that he had no hand in your upbringing." He wiped a little bit of blood from the corner of his mouth. "Are you up for a party?"
"I donít know. Maybe we should just take our story to the Senate."
"Thatís a surefire way to get yourself thrown in prison."
"But Iím not as innocent as I look."
"He needs to know the truth."
"I donít have fancy clothes."
"Thatís not a problem." A slow grin spread over his face. "Iíd like to see you all dressed up. Youíve never worn anything nicer than what youíre wearing now, have you?"
"Thatís not true. The academy uniforms were nice."
"And youíve never been to a ball. Thatís a shame. You are a noble. You shouldnít be denied that privilege."
"Deny me, please."
"Talon, come on, now. It wonít be that bad."
"Okay, all right. Whatís the occasion anyway?"
"Mother and Fatherís wedding anniversary."
"Oh, boy. This is gonna suck."
"Think of it as a chance to cause some chaos. Then itís not so bad."
"You were the problem child, werenít you?"
"I left by choice, but only barely."
I knew going to the ball was a bad idea, especially after we met with Angelique, the youngest daughter, and she instantly scurried off to get the family tailor for both me and Regan. Angelique carried herself with less poise than her sister. She chattered idly, played with Regan's hair and tried to flirt with me. But I liked her. She had a sweetness and innocence about her that was refreshing in light of what I'd already seen.
In about three hours, Regan and I had clothes fit for a ball. Regan's dress was purple with short puffy sleeves and a big purple bow at the back of her waist. Angelique curled Regan's hair and pulled it up to the top of her head. She stuck tiny white flowers in it and put just a little bit of color on Regan's cheeks and lips. I had the briefest glimpse of what my daughter would look like when she was twenty. She was beautiful. I wanted to put her in a convent right then.
I, on the other hand, looked like an idiot. I had pants and a jacket in a shade of blue so dark that it was impossible to tell it was blue. Underneath the jacket was a white shirt with opals for buttons. The tailor gave me a new pair of boots that were shiny enough to see reflections in and squeaked when I walked. At least I didn't have to wear anything frilly or lacy.
Angelique was giddy when she came to get us. "You look fantastic," she said. She looked fantastic herself in a simple black gown. She had done her hair just like Regan's. "Promise me a dance?"
"I don't dance," I said.
"It's not hard. I'll lead."
"Damn. There goes my chance to make all the other ladies jealous."
"I'm not exactly that desirable."
"Of course you are, silly. There's already quite a buzz about you. Just wait until they find out who you are."
"Do you know who I am?"
"I made Danel tell me. You could almost be Tirell's twin."
"I guess Tirell will be at the ball."
"He doesn't come to the balls any more. He's too busy reading and writing and being odd. If he shows up, he'll be drunk and cause a scene."
"What about Irial?"
"He'll be there. Late as usual."
The whole thing just seemed like a bad dream. It got worse and worse and there was no end in sight.
Danel met us outside the ballroom. Angelique looped her arm through mine, and Regan took Danel's hand. And that was how we entered the ballroom. If anyone couldn't tell right away that the four of us were related, they were probably blind.
Gervaso and his wife, Sharlyn, were surrounded by a gaggle of well-wishing nobles. Sharlyn, a wispy woman with thick grey hair that had once been a reddish brown, looked like she wanted to be anywhere but where she was. Gervaso's smile was just for show. They didn't look like a couple celebrating forty years of wedded bliss.
There was a large buffet table on one side of the room, and we spent most of the time there, waiting for Gervaso to be done with formalities. Angelique finally got a dance out of me when Regan said, "If I dance with Uncle Dan, you have to dance with Aunt Angie." I couldn't say no to that. It was almost a disaster, but Angelique was a good enough dancer to cover for me. Regan laughed the whole time.
It didn't take long for people to start to notice me. Sharlyn watched with tears in her eyes as Angelique spun me around the dance floor. Ladies put their heads together and whispered behind their hands. Men stood by and stared, shaking their heads.
When Gervaso wasn't looking, Sharlyn came over to admonish Danel for not introducing me to her, and then she took my hand and pulled me out to the dance floor.
"Your name suits you," she said. "If I had had any sense, I would have named you that myself. You're just as handsome as I dreamed you would be. Tell me, were you taken care of? Did someone love you as much as I did?"
"Yes, very much so."
"I'm glad. I'm glad you've turned out so well. My breasts ached for so long after you were taken. I prayed that some day I would see you again. I can't tell you how happy I am to know that you're alive and well. And Regan is just adorable. You and her mother must be so happy."
"Her mother's dead."
"Oh! I'm so sorry to hear that."
"It's been a while. I'm mostly okay with it."
"This is awkward for you, isn't it?"
"Yeah, and this suit isn't helping any."
She laughed. She put her hand against my cheek. The dance ended, and she drifted back to Gervaso's side to be the pale shade of the woman she had once been.
The ballroom doors burst open, and Irial filled the room. He was dressed to the nines in scarlet and black. A blonde woman in dusky rose colors was on his arm. Behind him, there was an entourage, including Kaylan, all dressed similarly. The whole crowd fell silent and stared.
"He seems only mildly perturbed," Danel said, grinning.
"I guess this is where we tell daddy dearest what's going on," I said.
"Might as well."
"Regan, stay with Angie."
"Be careful, Daddy," Regan said. "He's got a knife."
The cold spiders spread over my back. I saw Irial's knife buried to the hilt in Danel's side. I turned to Angelique. "Get her back to my ship now," I said.
Angelique nodded and swept Regan into her arms. As she passed through the doors, I saw someone else standing outside in nothing but leather pants. It had to be Tirell. Angelique grabbed his wrist and pulled him along with her.
Danel and I reached Gervaso about the same time Irial did. "It's time to talk, Father," Danel said.
I wished I had my guns.
Sharlyn grabbed my hand and squeezed it briefly as Gervaso led us into a sitting room off to the left side of the ballroom. I wished there was some way I could warn Danel. And I really wished there was some way I could go back and do everything again so that it would never come to this moment.
Gervaso sat down with a heavy sigh. "Now what, pray tell, is so important that you had to disrupt my ball?" he asked.
Danel proceeded to tell Gervaso everything that had gone on in the last year while I filled in a few blanks according to what Dylan and Shane told me. I didn't try to skirt around the truth of my identity. Everyone knew.
It was difficult for me to relate Shane's part of the story. I almost wished we'd brought Shane with us. Gervaso would ask me how I knew Shane told me the truth. And what would I say?
Gervaso took his time contemplating the story. I counted the minutes, hoping there had been enough time for Angelique to get Regan safely back to the ship. And I hoped she was getting Tirell to do something useful like bring me my guns.
"And just why would Decker tell you the truth when he'd already told so many lies?" Gervaso asked.
Ah, phrasing is everything. "Because he knows damn well I'll beat the shit out of him if he lies to me," I said.
"Then how can you be sure what he told you is true?"
Fuck. It always comes to that, doesn't it? "I've known him since I was seven. I can just tell when he's lying."
Gervaso looked at Irial. Irial's fingers were digging into the arm of his chair. "So what do you have to say for yourself?" he asked. By the way he asked it, I knew he believed what I had said.
"Nothing but lies," Irial hissed.
"Well, then how do you explain this?"
"My brother has poor taste in friends."
Danel stood up. "We did what we came to do," he said. "What happens here now is none of my concern. Once we tell the Senate everything, then the real fun begins."
"Perhaps then you'd like to tell the Senate that your friend is a psychic? Would you go so far as to tell them that you are as well?"
"You had your own brother kidnapped. Somehow I think my unnatural abilities would be overlooked in the face of an act as despicable as that."
Irial's face was turning red. He stood up slowly.
I sprang out of my chair and interposed myself between them, shoving Danel back towards the door. "It's way past time to be going," I said. In the instant before it happened, I realized that I had made a mistake. I could see it clearly, as if time just stopped. But in my haste to get us out of a potentially deadly situation, I didn't take into consideration that Danel took the knife for me. My back was to Irial. I saw Danel's eyes get wide. I knew what was coming. Danel turned, putting himself in the knife's path. I tried to pull us through the door before Irial got to his target, but it was closed and not paper thin like the church door.
The knife sliced my arm as Irial buried it in Danel's side. I got the door open and we stumbled out into the crowd. There were gasps and shrieks. Someone called out my name. I turned, still on my knees. Tirell tossed me my guns. He had put a shirt on but was pulling it off and pressing it to Danel's wound as he dragged Danel out of the ballroom. I backed out, keeping my guns on Irial. Behind Irial, Gervaso was damn near turning plaid with too many emotions. Sharlyn had fainted, and Valeska shot me an evil look as I made it out of the ballroom.
Tirell was nowhere no be seen. I heard him call my name from somewhere to my right and quickly discovered a hidden door. I pushed it shut again just as Irial and his entourage came through the ballroom doors. I started to say something, but Tirell shook his head. Using his head again, he motioned further down the dim, dusty corridor we were in. I put my guns up and grabbed Danelís feet. We stopped a few minutes later, coming to a wider space. Tirell lit some candles. Silently, we worked to stop the bleeding. Danel was half conscious and had a death grip on my arm as he gritted his teeth against the pain.
When we seemed to have Danel fairly stable, Tirell said, "I donít think any major organs were damaged, but he needs more help than I can give him here."
"Anala can heal his wound. We need to get him back to my ship," I said.
"That will be difficult considering his condition and the fact that your ship is probably the first place Irial will go to look for you two."
"There may still be a way. But we need to wait a while for things to calm down."
"Does anyone else know about these tunnels?"
"No. They havenít been used for anything in years."
"So we might be safe here for a while."
"For a while. Some of these tunnels run out into the garden, near your ship. If we can get Danel out there without hurting him more, you have a chance to get away. And we have to count on Irial not deciding to wait there for you, knowing thatís your only way off this planet."
"Weíll think of something, Iím sure."
But time passed, and nothing came to mind. Danel didnít get any worse, so I was content for the moment to wait. As always, waiting starts to get on my nerves in a hurry. I paced until the boots started to hurt my feet. Then I took them off and threw them at the wall.
"Oh, I almost forgot," Tirell said. He got up and pulled a small bundle from underneath a loose brick. "Your real clothes. Complete with real boots."
I found no words to express my gratitude for that.
Each time I paced the length of that room, I went a little further into the tunnels, looking for lights and listening for sounds. Closer to where we had entered, I could hear lots of shouting but not clearly enough to make out the words or whose voices I was hearing. I imagined that Irial and Gervaso were having a pretty nasty shouting match at that point. On the other side, I heard nothing. But deep into the darkness, I could see small orbs of blue light. I wasnít sure if they marked a doorway or another branch of the tunnel or something else. I was afraid to go to far, but even a few extra steps made the lights seem further away. It was almost as if they were being shy.
"What were these tunnels used for?" I asked.
"Hundreds of years ago, the servants used these to get around the house quicker as well as to store their own items of value their masters might not want them to have, among other things. Iím not entirely sure why they stopped. But then I found them chasing after you one day. I was supposed to be taking care of you, but I was paying more attention to a book, and you just crawled away. Since then, I find these tunnels a great way to hide from the rest of them when they start to bicker too much. And theyíre a wonderful place to learn magic. I can almost feel the spirits down here."
"I thought that was just a draft."
Tirell just gave me a strange look.
"So I guess those lights down there arenít really lights."
"More than likely, no."
"What kind of magic can you do?"
"None, really. You have to have an innate ability to do that kind of stuff. But I know more about it than most people who do have that ability."
"Okay, good. I can work with that. Do you know any spell or rite or whatever you want to call it that can cause mass confusion? On a temporary basis. Like hallucinations or something like that?"
"I do know of a spell that can cause people to see fire."
"How big is it?"
"What do you mean?"
"I need something thatís going to affect a lot of people in a large area."
"Well, then it might be better to create an illusion of some kind. Like say, the entire estate going up in flames."
"But whoís going to perform the spell?"
"But Ė "
"With a little help. I think we should wait a little longer anyway."
While we waited, I tried to flesh out the plan a little more. But there wasnít a whole lot to the plan that really needed to be fleshed out. I would get Danel out though a tunnel into the garden while Tirell distracted everyone with an illusion of fire. Nice and simple. I love it when a plan comes together. There were only two problems. First, even when Danel was fully conscious, he wasnít very mobile. Second, getting the spirits to help Tirell with the spell could be tricky. I decided to tackle the spirits first.
I walked down the hall towards the lights. They receded as they had before. I closed my eyes and concentrated. The cold tingles came faster and more intense than they ever had before. I felt myself swaying on my feet and put my hand out to lean against the wall. The corridor was narrow. I should have been able to lean only a few inches to either side and touch the walls. But nothing was there. I opened my eyes and stumbled to keep myself upright. I couldnít. I wasnít sure where I was, but I wasnít in that tunnel. Under my feet, there was nothing but black space. I felt dizzy, so I looked up. Above me, there was more of the same. The walls looked like smears of charcoal that moved. Somewhere in front of me, I could see the orbs of light. They seemed like they were waiting for me. I approached them slowly.
There were two of them around a curve that hadnít been there in reality. They were both about the size of human heads and they had faces.
"The little lost one came home!" one of them said. Though I could tell they had faces, I couldnít make out any features. Like the walls, they were smeared.
"Welcome home, little lost one," the other said. "Well, not so little any more."
"Thanks. Who are you?" I asked.
"Hilda and Gene."
I didnít ask which was which. I couldnít tell, and I wasnít sure they could either. They felt familiar to me, and I understood why Tirell had had to chase me into these tunnels. Even as a baby, I must have been able to feel their presence.
"I need a favor," I said.
"A favor? What makes you think we work for free? A spiritís gotta make a living."
"Really? What would you do with money? Youíre spirits."
"Oh, yeah. Well, Iím sure thereís something we need."
"If you think of it, let me know. Iíll do what I can."
"Thanks! So what do you need?"
"I need you to help Tirell do a spell."
They both laughed.
"Okay, letís just say we believe you havenít totally lost your mind."
"He needs more help than we can give him. Heís not quite all there, if you know what I mean."
"Heís all I got right now. Itís just a simple illusion. I want the whole estate to appear to be on fire so Danel and I can get out of here. It doesnít have to be perfect, but itís got to be believable and sustained. He knows the spell. He just doesnít have the juice. I think I can get him started, but I canít stay around to keep it going. We canít hide forever."
The faces turned away from me and whispered together for a while. Then they sighed. "As silly as it sounds, weíll help. I donít think itíll work. But you are the Shaman star. We would be remiss to refuse."
I stumbled against the wall, and the chills left like fog blown away on a stiff wind. The corridor was back to normal. The two globs of light hovered at a distance. I went back to the open area where Tirell and Danel were. Danel was awake and sitting up.
"Well?" Tirell asked.
"Are you ready to burn the house down?"
It was easier than I could have ever hoped. Tirell knew the lore of magic so well that it didnít take a whole lot for me to guide his consciousness to the spiritual plane where the mechanics of magic took place. Once Hilda and Gene were helping, it was even easier. The fire they created was real enough that I could almost feel the heat of the flames.
Danel ignored the pain of the knife wound and allowed us to keep up a good pace through the tunnels. We came out only a few feet away from the ship. If Irial or anyone had been waiting for us, they had already run back to the burning estate. The hatch was half open, and the engines were going. Anala and Dylan were waiting for us. Dylan pulled us in, and Anala immediately went to work healing Danelís wound. Shane got us of the ground and into space before anyone on the surface knew what had happened.
But it was not over. It was far from over. We had done what we wanted to do on Teatree, but that didnít change the fact that we had everyone in the universe after us for one reason or another. We needed to go to the Senate and tell them. That didnít ensure us a happy resolution. Almost certainly, Shane and I would still be facing all the charges against us. And everyone else was probably charged with aiding and abetting at the very least, conspiracy and treason at the most. So we were screwed. What was there to do but go headlong into it?
We set a course for Xebec where the main Senate meeting house was located and hoped for the best.