It’s been a long journey, taking Kusac Aldatan, his family, and allies over countless light-years and to numerous planets and space stations.
Finally it is the time for Kusac and his allies to deal with the threat of the warrior Valtegans on their world of M’zull. Will he work to rehabilitate them using tools given him by the Touiban scientists, or will his calling as the Avatar of Justice take over and destroy all of his foes?
Isolated on M’zull, Kusac—with his clan of Sholans and Humans—works to destabilize the Valtegan society, posing as the avenging spirit of the long-dead, legendary hero Zsadhi. Is it a ruse to fool the M’zullians, or is Kusac becoming more and more like the first Valtegan king with every passing day? If so, can he escape that destiny and chart his own course?
His mission will take Kusac and his clan into mortal danger. Even his young son Shaidan, supposedly safe on a far-distant world, has, unbeknownst to his father, become bound up in the whole plan to destroy the martial spirit of the M’zullians. Can Kusac navigate these dangerous waters and bring all of his family safely home while at the same time ending the M’zullian threat forever? Or will the price of victory prove too great even for the Avatar of Justice?
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16th 1553 (May)
WITH a confidence he wished he felt, Kusac, still in the green-skinned reptilian body shape of the young M’zullian Lord Nayash, strode toward the barracks HQ, flanked by the Prime world Valtegans Cheelar and M’yikku. Rezac, also in the shape of a M’zullian officer, brought up the rear.
Kusac stopped by the door, waiting for Cheelar to open it, then entered.
The male on duty at the desk jumped to his feet, chair crashing to the floor behind him.
“Lord Nayash! We weren’t expecting you, sir!” he stammered, trying to salute and pick up the fallen chair.
“Obviously,” said Kusac, with what he hoped was the right amount of disdain. “Have the troops assembled on the parade ground. I wish to address them.”
“Yessir! Your office is ready for you, as always.”
Kusac raised his eye ridge. “Hardly. My father’s only been dead two days.”
“Yessir! I mean, no sir.”
The scent of the youth’s fear was noticeable, and Kusac finally took pity on him.
“Just go and summon my troops,” he said sharply. “I’ll be in my late father’s office.”
“Yes, my Lord,” said the youngster, edging out from behind his desk and bolting out of the door.
Rezac gave a low laugh. “Adolescents in the military. They’re the same everywhere, and in every time.”
Cheelar signaled to M’yikku to go scout out the rooms behind the desk.
“Apparently,” said Kusac, unconsciously tapping the baton of office he carried against his free hand. “The M’zullians can’t tell the difference between us and them, can they?” he asked Cheelar.
“No, Captain. We all look like M’zullians,” the youth reassured him.
Kusac nodded and forced himself to relax.
M’yikku returned. “It’s safe,” he said. “There’s a meeting room beyond here, and off to one side is the private office, with a small bedroom with washroom for times when the old Lord stayed the night. There’s even a tiny kitchen.”
“Then let’s examine it,” said Kusac, making his way past the desk and into the meeting room.
Technically, it wasn’t on a par with what they had on Shola, or even on the Prime world, but the long table did have built-in comp pads and keyboards, and one side of the wall was lined with screens.
Passing on through it, Kusac came to “his” office. The dry, musty scent, overlaid with the equally pungent smell of liniments, made him recoil.
“I’ll open the windows, my Lord,” said M’yikku, heading over to them. “Seems that the old Lord was something of an invalid, preferring to stay here, with his young wife.”
Hand across his nose and mouth, Kusac ventured into the room, looking around at the ancient but obviously comfortable furniture. From there, he passed into the bedroom. That was a shock of another kind. Everywhere was the obvious influence of a female, from the pastel shades on the windows, to the carpet, and even the wall hangings and bedding.
“Poor old bugger,” said Rezac quietly. “He obviously doted on his wife to let her have such freedom here, on the base, only to end up murdered because K’hedduk wanted her.”
“Probably why they stayed here often,” said Cheelar.
“He knew they were safer here than anywhere else.”
“I want the private rooms gutted right now,” said Kusac. “Get more appropriate furnishings brought in today. I want nothing left to remind me of my late father and his widow.”
“A wise move, Lord Nayash,” said a voice from the doorway of the conference room. “Start fresh, make it your own.”
Kusac ignored both the newcomer and his own escort, drawing their weapons. “Cheelar, see to it at once. Call a reputable designer to come out immediately with leaflets and samples. I will make my selections today and they can have it installed by tonight.” He dismissed Cheelar with a wave of his hand before turning to look past his guards at the interloper.
“And who might you be?” he asked the older male while sending a blistering mental complaint to Rezac.
“A distant neighbor. Telmaar’s the name. Had a feeling you might be here today, so I thought it a good opportunity for us to meet. No need for the weapons, I’m relatively friendly,” he added, gesturing to the firearms pointing toward him.
A gesture from Kusac, and his guards reholstered their guns. “I’m afraid now is not convenient, Telmaar,” he said. “I’ve a lot I need to see to today.”
“Surely this can all wait a few hours, Nayash? We Officers of the Fleet need to stick together. You’re new to the Court; there’s a lot of factions and undercurrents you should be aware of,” he said, sitting on the end of the table.
The young Corporal chose that moment to return at a run. “Lord Nayash, sir, the troops are deployed on the parade ground for you.”
Kusac acknowledged him with a nod. “Prior commitments, you know how it goes,” he said apologetically to Telmaar. “Perhaps later in the week, when I’ve settled in.”
Telmaar sighed and got to his feet. “As you wish, but some things won’t wait. Don’t be surprised if you’re summoned to Court within the next forty-eight hours. Our new Emperor is more hands-on than his predecessor was.”
“I appreciate the warning,” Kusac said.
“I’ll give you another. Contact the Palace today about your quarters there, and go to Court tomorrow. Don’t wait to be summoned.” He hesitated briefly. “Have to say, you’re not what I expected.”
“Time to face my responsibilities,” he said briefly. “I’ll keep your advice in mind, Telmaar. At our next meeting, I won’t be so short on hospitality, but right now, as you heard, my people are waiting for me. M’yikku, escort Lord Telmaar to his vehicle.”
With a wave of his hand, their visitor followed the young Prime out.
We have to be more alert to everyone around us! Kusac sent to Rezac as soon as they left. That could’ve been a fatal mistake for us all!
Sorry, Kusac, replied Rezac in a subdued tone. I was focusing on what we were talking about. I should have noticed him.
So was I. We’re equally to blame. We just can’t let our guard down for a moment, replied Kusac.
Going to be a hell of a mission.
We knew that, but it doesn’t hit home until something like this happens. Thank the Gods we were at least talking in character!
“Lead the way, Corporal,” Kusac said aloud. “After inspecting my troops, I’ll want to see their quarters.”
“Yes, Lord Nayash, sir!”
“At least he looked after his people,” said Rezac as they drove back to the estate a few hours later. “But the barrack’s nursery!” He shook his head. “So devoid of anything that would make the young ones’ lives normal.”
“They’ve been over two thousand years without female influences in their everyday lives,” said Kusac.
“Aye, but you’d think the drones would be more caring!”
“They can’t afford to be,” said Cheelar. “They’re raising either officers or warriors, and there’s no place in their lives for softness. Any hint of that, and the other males in their caste would destroy them.”
Kusac looked up sharply. “Was that the kind of upbringing you had?”
“No. We were adults when we were released from the accelerated growth tanks, and we always had the company of our sisters. We weren’t segregated. Our father, General Kezule, let us live more like Primes, though he trained us hard— a mixture of what you did with the Valtegans visiting your world, and his way.”
“The youngsters here are not being brought up unkindly,” said M’yikku, “but they are being raised to be warriors, and strong in mind and body.”
You can’t change how they’re being brought up now, sent Kaid from their mountain base. When our mission is over, everything will change anyway. A few more months is all it will take.
You’re right, Kusac replied. We can’t risk changing anything. Bad enough that I can’t sink to the depths that Nayash did, I’ll just have to hope those who know him accept that his
new responsibilities have changed him for the better.
That and the whole burning coffin event at his father’s funeral, sent Carrie from the estate house.
That, too, sent Kusac. Is everything quiet back there? We may have to return you to the base, it’s just too dangerous here. That visit from the Head Inquisitor on our first night really got me rattled.
Not surprised it did, she agreed. I’m still worried about it. Yes, Jo and I are fine. I’d follow Telmaar’s advice, by the way. Get your steward to call the Palace about your rooms there.
Will do. Got to go, almost home now, he said as their vehicle pulled into the estate driveway.
“When do you plan to do our first mission?” Rezac asked.
“Tonight, unless anything comes up to stop us. When we’ve time, I want you to visit the mountain plantation, find out if the gossip we heard at the village market is true and they do live normal lives with their females free. It wouldn’t hurt to have some allies. Talking of which, I want all you can find out about Lord Telmaar, Cheelar. I want to know why he came to meet me today and what he’s hoping to gain by befriending me.”
“I’ll get on that as soon as we get back,” said Cheelar. “Don’t forget that the ordinary troops aren’t bred to be the officer and ruling classes, they’re just the foot soldiers. If they’re as isolated as we hope up in the mountains, we may find they’re a genetic mix that includes both the military and workers.”
When they reached the house, Kusac called Laazif to his office to ask about his quarters at the Palace.
“They’re underground, my Lord,” the steward said. “Unlike his late brother, Emperor K’hedduk, may He live forever, is asking all the nobility and courtiers to base themselves for most of the week at their quarters in the Palace.” He hesitated briefly and, literally taking a step back from him, ventured, “If I may make a suggestion, my Lord?”
Kusac rapidly searched the memories he’d taken from the late Lord Nayash before killing him and taking his place. Nayash had been well known for his volatile and excessive nature, deriving pleasure from bullying and tormenting his late father’s staff, to say nothing of those not considered his personal clique. Well, time to begin as he meant to go on.
“Please do, Laazif,” he said. “I didn’t expect to inherit my father’s title so soon, so any advice you have would be welcome.”
Laazif visibly relaxed. “Then, my Lord, I suggest that I send a group of servants and drones to the Palace to open up your apartments. They haven’t been used in over fifteen years. Your late father had no love for Court life, as you know, so there will be a lot to be done to make them habitable.”
“See to it, then. I’ll be taking my staff with me, you included, of course.”
“Yes, Lord Nayash. Shall I call the Palace Chamberlain to inform him of this, and arrange for an appointment to be made with the Emperor? He will want you to swear the Oath of Fealty to him now that you’re the new Lord.”
“Yes, see to it, please. We’ll leave for the Palace tomorrow morning.”
“Very good, my Lord,” said Laazif, bowing to him before departing.
“So K’hedduk’s keeping all his nobles where he can see them,” said Rezac, as soon as they were alone.
“Apparently so,” said Kusac, sitting down at the desk. “If they’re under his nose, he assumes they can’t be plotting against him.”
“Reasonable, given each of the nobles breeds the soldiers and spacers needed not only for the royal troops, but for their own ships in the fleet.”
“Not to mention runs a major commercial enterprise,” said Kusac, turning on the comm and data terminal on his desk. “Mine is three munitions factories. They make the weapons and ammo for the equivalent of their commandos.”
“You do? Hmm, that could be of use to us.”
“Perhaps. Meanwhile, let’s check out maps of the surrounding area. As well as making sure that there’s nothing to stop tonight’s mission, I want to find out exactly where Telmaar’s estate is.”
“Be amazing if it’s his we’re planning to hit,” said M’yikku with a grin.
“Debatable,” said Kusac, pulling up an online map of the area. “However, it looks like it’s not his estate.” A sudden thought hit him, and he stopped searching. “Could private terminals like this be monitored from the Palace?”
“Unlikely,” said Cheelar from where he was pouring cups of cold maush for them all. “It would take an enormous amount of people and resources to track every terminal in the city, never mind outlying areas like here. What’s more likely is that certain words and phrases are flagged to trip an alarm, and that will draw the attention of an actual person. Even then, they may not get around to checking each incident out for several hours. I can draw you up a list of the most likely topics to set off such an alarm, if you wish.”
“I’ve been checking for troop movements, and road works. Anything like that likely to set off an alarm?”
“Should be fine,” Cheelar said reassuringly, coming over with wide-mouthed cups for Kusac and Rezac. “If you’d been checking the known routes that the Emperor was taking tomorrow on his way to, say, a specific chapel, then yes, that would set off alarms.”
“Looks like we’ll need to use public terminals in future, to be safe,” said Rezac. “We had to do that back in my time, during the Valtegan occupation of Shola.”
“Make a list of those things we should avoid doing, Rezac,” said Kusac, shutting down the terminal.
“Stop calling each other by our real names, for starters,” said Rezac with a grimace. “I’m as guilty of that as you.”