A war fought in the shadows
A conspiracy shattered in fire
A moment of weakness…
When politics are played for blood.
The destruction of the secret archive of the Royal Order of Keepers on Mars has left Damien Montgomery, Hand of the Mage-King, with his enemies defeated, his lover dead—and his questions unanswered.
When he seeks out the remaining Keepers for answers, he discovers only violence and death in their strongholds. Someone else is hunting down the survivors to make sure they never answer Damien’s questions—or anyone else’s.
As a wave of murder sweeps Mars and the consequences of the Keepers’ conspiracy sink home, Damien is summoned before the Council of the Protectorate to answer for the deaths of two other Hands. In the political heart of the Protectorate of Mars, he finds he may be forced to choose between honoring the oaths he swore and preserving the survival of the Protectorate itself!
The frail old man standing by the office window could barely even remember the name he’d been born under. It hadn’t been the name he’d used for most of his life, the one he’d entered the Protectorate’s service under. Even then, he’d been a double agent, working for Legatus as well as Mars.
That was the name the Keepers had known him by—but that was a man the entire galaxy, including both the Martian and Legatan governments, knew was dead.
He’d used many names since. He’d introduced himself to Damien Montgomery at a…memorable meeting as Winton, and that name served as well as any. It was even close, he thought, to his birth name.
He smiled thinly as he studied the concourse beyond his window. The transshipment station he stood on saw a lot of traffic into and out of the Alpha Centauri System and the optimistically named New Terra beneath the station.
None of those swarming crowds would have given the old man in the suit with the pure white hair a second glance, never realizing he owned the station.
Others managed it for him, but owning the platform gave him a secure location, only five jumps from Sol, from which to carry out his plans. The closeness was no longer as necessary as it had once been, thanks to the very allies and technology he was now waiting on.
A soft buzz informed him the Link was online, and Winton turned around, walking into the field of hidden cameras needed to send his three-dimensional image across the light years—via a quantum entanglement technology the Protectorate he’d once served didn’t even know existed.
“Partisan,” a gruff voice greeted him as screens slid down from the roof to encase him, creating the illusion of a conference room with one other person in it.
Another name. Winton smiled. It wouldn’t do for any of the people he met to ever connect the various names. That…would cause problems.
“Mr. President,” he greeted the President of the Legatan Republic. “You’re late.”
“I am a busy man, Partisan,” President George Solace said calmly. The twice-elected ruler of the most important UnArcana world was a bulky man in his early forties, still hale and vigorous with the muscles of the football captain he’d once been.
“Important as this affair is, I have a star system to run,” Solace continued, “and the groundwork for an interstellar nation to build. Your report?”
“The Keepers are done,” Winton told him. “Montgomery and Ndosi came close to realizing they were being played, but I had an asset in place. Ndosi is dead and the Archive destroyed. The Royal Order of the Keepers of Secrets and Oaths is broken, its survivors scattered.”
“And what would you have done if your provocations had killed Montgomery?”
“The death of a Hand might have delayed the Keepers’ fall, but it would also have guaranteed it,” he pointed out. “‘A Hand falls, another rises,’ after all. His Majesty would have sent Lomond or another Hand to seek out Montgomery’s killer. There would have been no subtlety, no doubt then. Only fire and the sword.
“No, Mr. President, the Keepers were doomed from the moment you convinced me to turn my hand against them,” Winton finished. Earlier, perhaps, but he wouldn’t admit that to Solace. He needed the Legatan to believe he was in control.
“Are there any left who can recognize what we’ve done?” Solace asked.
“It’s hard to be certain,” the old man said with carefully measured hesitance in his voice. “Some senior members would have been elsewhere, and I suspect the Keepers had backups I might not have been aware of.”
“We cannot risk their secrets being turned over to the Mage-King, Partisan,” the President told him. “We are not yet ready to declare the wider Republic. No one can be allowed to expose what we have had to do.”
“I have assets in place,” Partisan told him, “but they are insufficient to guarantee the removal of any surviving Keepers. Additional resources would be helpful.”
Solace glared at him for a moment, then sighed and nodded.
“I will have the codes and contacts for an LMID cell operating on Mars forwarded to you,” he said. “We have few reliable resources that close to Olympus Mons, Partisan. Do not waste them.”
Winton nodded. If he was lucky, those resources were as obviously linked to Legatus as he hoped.
“The Council maneuvering around the deaths of Octavian and Ndosi provides an opportunity,” he told Solace.
“Alexander will never permit what they want,” Solace replied. “He allows them to run out the rope, but he will hang them with it.”
“That is exactly the opportunity I meant. You will never have a better reason than that.”
“We are not ready,” Solace repeated. “The Fleet continues to be built. It would never do for the Protectorate to realize the new ships exist. There will come a time, but it is not yet.”
“You may never have a better excuse,” Winton pointed out.
“The Legislature has placed that decision in McClintlock’s hands,” Solace told him. “They trust him. I trust him. He will act when the time is right.”
“Of course,” Winton murmured. “Do you need anything more?”
“No, Partisan. Make certain the Keepers are destroyed. Their knowledge is our weakness.”
“It shall be done.”
Once the Link had shut itself down, the screens and cameras folding away to join the technological wonder itself in hiding, Winton finally allowed himself to frown. His conversations with Solace were always fraught.
The President of Legatus’s plans worked well for Winton’s intentions, but he couldn’t afford for Solace’s people to realize that “Partisan” was anything but an ex-Keeper turned mercenary, willing to sell out his former allies for money.
He tapped a command on his wrist computer and waited, turning back to the windows over the space station’s concourse. As he watched, someone took advantage of the fact that the centripetal pseudo-gravity was only present at the floor to fly a glider over the crowd.
A quick glance down at the computer he wore confirmed that station security already knew. The daredevil would be intercepted. If this was the first time they’d come across security’s radar, they’d just get a stern lecture.
If it wasn’t, well, Alpha Centauri had laws on the books for reckless endangerment for a reason.
The door behind him slid open without warning, the man entering being the only person other than Winton himself the security system would let through. There were very, very few people left in the galaxy that the old man trusted, but the muscular Mage with the freshly grown beard standing in the door in unmarked gray fatigues was one of them.
Kent Riley wore the gold medallion of a Mage, though this one lacked the man’s full qualifications as a Combat Mage. Thin gray gloves covered his hands, concealing the projector rune carved into his palm.
“Was your discussion fruitful, boss?” Riley asked as the door slid shut behind him. The ex-Marine—like Winton, officially dead now—crossed to the concourse and darkened the one-way glass.
“A mixed bag as always with Solace,” Winton admitted, settling into a chair with an unconcealed sigh of relief. “He has agreed to provide us with codes for his agents on Mars. An Augment cell, if we’re lucky.”
“Would the Legatans have actually snuck a cell of cyborg Mage killers onto Mars?” Riley asked. He wasn’t disbelieving, just questioning.
That was one of the things Winton liked about his much younger ally. Riley wasn’t going to disbelieve something just because it went against what he believed to be true. He’d ask for evidence, but he’d believe it when it was given to him as well.
“More than one, I suspect,” Winton replied. “It’ll be up to you to find out. I…lack the strength for field work anymore.”
“You push yourself too hard as it is,” Riley pointed out. “Few knew me on Mars, and I have disguises and false identities. I can handle this for you. You’re not a Mage or a cyborg, boss. And we need you.”
Winton smiled thinly. Riley, more than any other, knew how carefully Winton kept that true. No one else, not even Riley, knew all of the threads that converged in this office.
Riley knew more than most, and there would come a time when Winton brought the young Mage fully into his confidence. Riley had killed a Hand for him, after all, and there were few better proofs of loyalty and commitment.
“The Legatans aren’t willing to commit themselves just yet,” he told Riley. “They’re not ready… We want the Republic to be born before it’s ready, so I want you to find a spark to push things forward.”
“What kind of spark?” Riley asked.
“The Council investigation into Montgomery provides us with tinder,” Winton replied. “A threat to the Council itself should light it. You’ll have the contact codes for the Legatans, but also…”
“We’ll send you with some resources I’ve long promised some old friends. It’s time to fully activate Nemesis Sol.”
“It’s been a while since we had contact,” Riley warned. “They may not be willing to talk to us anymore.”
“We promised them ships, Riley,” Winton said. “If we fulfill that promise, they’ll be willing to talk.”