Captain Mykel is a young officer who is potentially Talented and unaware that, should he ever discover that Talent, his life is forfeit. For Mykel is not an Alector, and only Alectors are allowed to use Talent.
The rebellion spirals out of control, spurred by treachery, corruption, and greed-and aided by the reappearance of the ancient soarers, a fragile humanoid race of flying beings thought to have become extinct. A terrible war is brewing, and one or both of these men are the only ones who might stand against it.
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The Fourth Book of the Corean Chronicles
By L. E. Modesitt Jr., David G. Hartwell
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2005 L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
All rights reserved.
Colonel Dainyl looked down at the stack of reports on his desk. He was almost afraid to take his eyes off them. The moment he looked away, more reports appeared. He knew that wasn't so, but it was the way things felt. Although he was the number four Myrmidon officer on Acorus, when he studied all the reports, he felt more like a glorified lander clerk.
He pushed the resentment aside. He'd had his years as a flying officer, more than most Myrmidons, and he'd been rewarded for long and faithful service. He could have easily been one of the rankers who spent decades or longer in service, yet who never became more than a squad leader or an undercaptain — if that.
He brushed back a lock of shimmering black hair, hair that needed to be trimmed, he reminded himself, and glanced toward the window that looked out on the headquarters courtyard. There, on the raised stage, a pteridon had just landed, folding back its long blue leathery wings. The Myrmidon rider vaulted from the saddle and handed the dispatch case to the headquarters duty squad leader. So early in the morning, it had to be the incoming daily message run from Ludar.
For a moment, Dainyl just watched the ranker and pteridon. Then he looked down at the report he had been reading — the quintal operations report from the Seventh Myrmidon Company at Dulka.
At the sound of boots on marble, he looked up once more, this time toward the open study door that allowed him a view, such as it was, of the main corridor of Myrmidon headquarters. Submarshal Tyanylt walked quickly past Dainyl's open door toward the one remaining study on the corridor — that of Marshal Shastylt.
Dainyl could sense ... something, and Tyanylt looked determined — or worried. That was unusual for any alector, and especially for Tyanylt, who never showed emotion other than a calm pleasantness — even when Dainyl used Talent-senses, although Dainyl had always been careful only to use those senses to receive.
Not that there was anything that Dainyl could have done to alleviate Tyanylt's worries. The submarshal was his direct superior and had always maintained a certain reserve, more so than the usual for an alector. Tyanylt was well respected, and well connected to both the Duarch of Elcien and the Duarch of Ludar — and to the high alectors who surrounded both Duarchs.
The colonel forced his attention back to the report, noting that Majer Faerylt had cited the loss of a skylance and the receipt of a replacement from Lyterna. Dainyl paused, then reread the section. How could a Myrmidon have lost a skylance without losing both rider and pteridon? That had not happened in centuries. He jotted down a note to ask for a fuller explanation.
As he turned to the section summarizing Seventh Company's flights for the last two-month quint, the slightest flash of purpleness — something sensed by his Talent, not seen by his eyes — flared before Dainyl.
Almost without thought, he was on his feet and out of his study, nearly running toward the marshal's closed doorway. He came to a halt outside the door, but he could sense nothing through the heavy wood. Usually, he could sense something.
"Sir?" he called. "Are you all right?"
There was no answer.
With still no answer, Dainyl opened the study door, his hand ready to grab his holstered sidearm as he stepped into the chamber, closing the door behind him. Marshal Shastylt lay half-sprawled on the floor beside his wide desk. Several papers lay strewn on the green marble floor, as if the marshal's hand had knocked them from the desk as he had fallen.
Once inside the study, Dainyl could sense the marshal's lifeforce — weak, but steady — and that he was breathing. Submarshal Tyanylt was not breathing. As Dainyl watched, his lifeforce and aura finished fading, then vanished. Within moments, all that remained on the smooth green marble floor of the study were Tyanylt's uniform, sidearm, and boots.
Dainyl swallowed. While he'd seen more than a few Cadmians, and other landers and indigens, die over the years, he had only seen a handful of Myrmidons die, their bodies vanishing into dust nearly instantly — in accidents and once after a death sentence for gross negligence — but he'd never seen a high-ranking Myrmidon or alector die. That just didn't happen, and certainly not in the Myrmidon marshal's study.
The marshal groaned, faintly, and Dainyl immediately knelt. He could sense no broken bones or severe internal injuries. So he gently turned the marshal onto his back and waited.
Within several moments, the marshal's lifeforce had purpled into greater strength, and his breathing was steadier. Shortly, his eyes opened.
Dainyl helped him to his feet. With his shimmering black hair, unaging alabaster face, and violet eyes, the marshal looked no different from any of the other most senior alectors, save that he was a span or so taller than Dainyl's two and a half yards. Shastylt's eyes flickered to the clothing and boots on the floor. His lips tightened slightly, but he said nothing as Dainyl helped him into the chair.
Dainyl waited while the marshal caught his breath.
"Has anyone else been in here?" Shastylt finally asked.
"No, sir. I sensed something, and when no one answered, I came in and closed the door behind me."
The marshal nodded slowly, his deep violet eyes fixing on Dainyl.
Neither alector spoke.
Dainyl waited, holding his Talent shields, not certain how the marshal might react.
"You do understand, Dainyl?"
"Yes, sir." Dainyl understood all too well. In whatever had transpired before he entered, Tyanylt had crossed the marshal — and paid the price.
"You have always been cautiously decisive. That is a good characteristic." He swallowed, then coughed, straightening in the chair. "You may not know this, but the submarshal was several decades older than I."
There was no reason Dainyl would have known. Alectors never showed their age, holding the same appearance from early adulthood until death, until that time when they could no longer hold their lifeforce.
"He was deeply concerned about some trends he was seeing all across Corus, and he could see that his lifeforce was failing."
Dainyl knew that the marshal was lying, and that Shastylt knew that Dainyl recognized that. The colonel nodded. "I just felt something and knew something had happened."
Shastylt cleared his throat. "Tyanylt and I have both known that Acorus faces a transition in the next few years, one that will change everything."
Every alector knew that. Ifryn was failing, as its lifeforce was drained away, and in the next decade the Archon of Ifryn — based on the recommendation of the Highest Fieldmaster — would have choose where to transfer the master scepter, either to Acorus of Efra. That choice would decide the fate of two worlds. "That choice does not have to be made that soon, does it, sir?"
"Preparations must be made, one way or another, and how those preparations are handled may also affect the choice." Shastylt reached out and lifted the goblet of water on the corner of the desk, taking a small swallow. "Submarshal Tyanylt felt most strongly about the decisions made by our High Alector of Justice. Tyanylt reported his concerns to the Highest, and was told that, while he had identified some valid problems, plans would have to go forth as outlined, especially since Submarshal Alcyna in Alustre had no such concerns. Not many are allowed to question the Highest. None are allowed to refuse the Highest."
Since the Myrmidons' prime function was to ensure and enforce justice, the High Alector of Justice on Acorus was effectively the director of all Myrmidon activities. For a submarshal to refuse his duties ... Dainyl shook his head. He could understand a submarshal's resigning. It had not happened often, but there were precedents. But to refuse without resigning?
"I see you understand."
"Enough, sir." It was all too clear that, in the contest of wills and lifeforce between the marshal and the submarshal, the marshal had prevailed. Dainyl also understood that it would be foolhardy to oppose both the Highest and the marshal.
"A most cautious response. That is fitting for these times." Shastylt glanced to the uniform on the floor. "There will be a week of mourning for the death of the submarshal. He served Ifryn, the Archon, and the Duarches long and well, but lifeforce fails even the most powerful in time. I will have to meet with the Highest to determine how he wishes to proceed."
"For the moment, you will remain as director of operations and maintenance, as before." Shastylt smiled, an expression not so much of triumph as one that showed the relief of someone who had successfully passed a great trial. "That will be all, Colonel."
Dainyl nodded respectfully.
"If you would summon the duty officer on your way out?"
"Yes, sir." Dainyl half bowed once more, then turned and departed, closing the door most carefully behind him, as he headed back down the corridor to the desk of the day's duty officer — Undercaptain Ghanyr. His steps were firm on the green marble floor.CHAPTER 2
Mykel ambled over to the edge of the grape arbor that he could just touch without stepping out from under the roof of the warm-weather dining porch. The golden red grapes were perfect, ripe, but still firm, glowing in the orange-tinged light before sunset. He eased one from the rear of a bunch, shaded enough so that it was cooler, and taken from where its absence wouldn't be noticed until his parents harvested that section of the vine.
"I saw that." His father laughed, stepping through the rear archway with a bronze tray holding six heavy goblets. "A captain in the mounted rifles, nearly twenty-six years old, and you're still snitching grapes."
Mykel turned and grinned. "Just one. They're best right off the vine." He popped the grape in his mouth — slightly tart, but still sweet, and cool. He was careful not to let any of the juice escape. The pale blue dress tunic was one of the few he had that wasn't a uniform, and he'd inherited it from his grandfather two years earlier.
"Don't let your mother catch you. She wants those as ripe as possible for the holiday wine." Olent set the tray down in the center of the long table, then straightened.
"Has he been pulling grapes off the vine again?" asked Viencet, following his father through the archway, carrying a large pitcher of wine drawn from the cask in the cellar.
"Some things don't change," replied Olent.
Viencet, who was barely seventeen, shook his head. His flowing blond hair — darker than Mykel's — momentarily flipped away from his head. Mykel didn't much care for his youngest brother's hairstyle, but had never said anything. Once Viencet joined a guild, or became a Cadmian, the long locks would go. In Faitel, only day laborers, small farm holders, peasants — all usually indigens — or students — generally landers from the skilled crafting or larger landholding families — had long hair.
"The fowl will be ready in just a bit." Aelya announced from the archway, smiling at her husband, and their sons. "Try to leave the grapes alone, Mykel."
"You always were." His mother smiled broadly before disappearing into the house.
Mykel blotted his forehead with the back of his hand. Early harvest was hot in Faitel and even warmer in Elcien, unless the westerlies blew hard off the ocean for several days straight.
"You have to go back on Londi, don't you?" asked Olent.
"I have to be back before midnight on Decdi. I'll leave on the early coach." That wasn't quite true, because Mykel really had until muster on Londi morning, but he wasn't about to wait until the very last moment.
All the same, Mykel found it hard to believe that sixteen days of his two-week leave were already over, and that he just had three more nights — and two full days — before he had to head back on his return to duty. He was fortunate that he was stationed outside Elcien, just seventy vingts from home.
"Will you get more leave when you become an overcaptain?" asked Viencet.
"If I ever make overcaptain. No. All officers get four weeks leave in a year, and that's only when we're in quarters. There's no leave when we're deployed."
"I can't see being a Cadmian, or even a city patroller," offered Viencet. "I wasn't very good in the basic physical training. Not like you."
"It's not just physical." Mykel replied, trying to keep his voice even. Why did so many people, even his brother, think that Cadmians were all muscle?
"No. You also have to believe in things, like why you can't cut too many trees, or plant too many of the same crops, or use wood when stone or steel will do —" "Viencet ..." Olent drew out his younger son's name. "There are good reasons for those."
"Oh, yes, I'm sure —"
"Viencet!" barked Olent, turning his broad and muscular frame.
Viencet lowered his eyes. "I'm sorry, Father."
His voice wasn't that sorry, Mykel reflected, but, as the old saying went, Viencet listened to the windsongs of the ancients. Not that anyone even knew if the ancients had even sung. After an awkward silence, he asked, "What are you thinking of doing when you finish your studies next Quintem?"
"I don't know. I don't want to work for any of the artisans' or engineers' guilds. If you're a lander, you do the hard work that takes brains, and if you're indigen, or if the alectors think you're stupid, you end up in the coal mines or as a laborer and die young."
"You're anything but stupid." Viencet was bright — but lazy and stubborn, not that Mykel was about to say that, although his grandfather had — often and loudly — before his sudden death.
"Besides, in most of the respected guilds, you can't ever say a word about what you do."
Mykel understood that. He'd never liked the guilds' silence rules, either. "There are still the building crafts and trade, even factoring."
Viencet shrugged. "I'll never be a master tiler like Grandfather or Father. When I see the mosaics Father does ... The head of the Structural Engineers had his last one turned into eternastone."
Mykel pursed his lips. His father had never mentioned that. Supposedly, the transformation process — kept to the recorders of deeds and the highest of alectors — cost hundreds of golds and was used for great works of art, or for the most important buildings, and, of course, the high roads of the Duarchy. He turned to his father. "You never told me that."
"It was good. It wasn't that good," replied Olent. "They wanted it eternal because it's in the receiving hall of the artisans and displays their seal."
"Does that make it eternal?" asked Sesalia, Mykel's older sister, who had stepped through the archway carrying a large covered casserole on an enameled bronze tray.
"The Hall of Justice in Elcien has been standing for more than three centuries, and it looks like it was finished yesterday. I won't be sticking around long enough to find out if my poor mosaic will last that long." Olent laughed. "Like my own da said, you have to take pleasure in what you do, not in what people might think about it years from now."
Sesalia set the casserole in the middle of the table. "Everyone should sit down. Mother and Bortal are bringing the fowl and the bread."
Olent took the chair at the head of the table. Mykel slipped onto the chair to his father's right, across from Sesalia. Aelya appeared and set the serving platter in front of her husband before taking her seat at the other end of the table. The squarish Bortal hurried after her, setting a basket of bread on each end of the table, then settling between his wife and Aelya. The last one to the table was Viencet, who seated himself to Mykel's right.
Olent looked at Aelya, then cleared his throat. "In the name of the One Who Was, Is, and Will Be, may our food be blessed, and our lives as well, in the times of prosperity and peace, and those which are neither. Blessed be the lives of both the deserving and the undeserving that both may strive to do good in the world and beyond, and may we always recall that we do not judge our worthiness, but leave that judgment to the One Who Is ..." After a moment of silence, he lifted his head and looked to Aelya. "You prepared it, dear."
"Thank you, but it's in front of you."
Excerpted from Alector's Choice by L. E. Modesitt Jr., David G. Hartwell. Copyright © 2005 L. E. Modesitt, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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