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Admiral Mayda Hrorek knew what-- or rather who-- she was looking for. It had very little to do with what the spies thought she was looking for. Not that she'd have been adverse to someone pretty to share her bed for the next few nights, but she was hunting different prey, more dangerous and more rewarding.

She frowned at the monitor. She wanted clear images of each prisoner, but she didn't want anyone else to get such an image of the man she sought. And the prisoners were working hard at keeping their heads down when they couldn't keep their backs to the cameras. That alone was enough to make her certain that the man she sought was there, that the corpse they'd retrieved was a decoy. If he is dead, it would be an incredible waste, but it wouldn’t upset our plans. He’d just be an unexpected advantage. If he’s alive.

She didn't want to visit the prisoners personally. That would attract the attention she was trying to avoid. She'd do it if she had to, but it wasn't something she usually did. And, if the wrong people realize, I’ll have to turn him over for execution. If they realize after I have him-- Is he worth the risk? If we’ve missed a spy-- She shook her head minutely and tried a new approach.

She let her eyes unfocus a little and gave herself five minutes to try to find patterns. Every man in that room knew. Their behavior would tell her.

“That one.” She focused the image on the man she wanted. His hair was the right color, an undistinguished brown, but very closely cropped, an appropriate length for who he was pretending to be but completely wrong for who he was.

Of course, removing hair is much faster than growing it. And the corpse was burned enough that there wasn’t any hair on its head. She had to judge his appearance through a lens of imagination because his face was bruised and swollen. She remembered his cheeks being thinner almost but not quite hollow with his face tapering slightly between cheekbones and chin. It was a face that might actually look better with stubble. The taper is still there.

The bruises on his face might have come from falling and tumbling during the battle, but they might equally be intended as disguise. None of the other faces she could see had quite that level of bruising. He wore the same orange coveralls as all of the other prisoners and sat slumped as if exhausted and frightened.

He might well be both, but it surprised her that he'd show it in front of his men. Except that, if he hadn't, he'd have stood out. Every man in the hold knew how bad things might be. If she were so inclined, she could kill them all. Some commanders would do worse. They might or might not know her by reputation, might or might not know that there were things she was unlikely to do.

They probably did know. None of them had objected to being kept on her flagship in spite of the limited space available, and their commander had ordered a surrender. Few Pynrian commanders risked that any more, not even with Audari commanders who had better reputations.

Conquest and rule through absolute terror. It works. Until it doesn’t. Even the best of us have done terrible things to achieve rank. She took a deep breath. Maybe tomorrow’s officers won’t have to. She doubted that change would come that easily or, possibly, at all. But I will try. The clan will have to give me that much.

The very orderliness of the Scarlet’s surrender had been her first clue that her captain might not be as dead as his second claimed.

His father would have expected him to die rather than risk capture. Perhaps the new king has changed the standing orders since the old man's death. Perhaps not.

Apparently Captain Prince Vikenti wanted to live.

“Should we gas them before we pull him out?” Mayda’s aide and second cousin, Lieutenant Jaynos Hrorek, had pulled men out of similar situations for Mayda's amusement and knew that the prisoners might riot. He also knew her well enough to know that there was something different going on.

Mayda tapped her fingers on the table. Unconscious prisoners would be safer to deal with, but she wanted Vikenti to know what was happening. She looked at her cousin and said, “Use your judgment. This is… different.” She spoke softly enough that the guard by the door wasn’t likely to hear. That guard was probably loyal, but an error on that count would kill them all. “I don’t want photographic evidence anywhere. I don’t want written evidence anywhere. Take him through the corridors with something over his head.”

Her cousin’s face remained completely impassive, an expression that made him look stolid and not very bright. It had served him and their clan well in the past because it made their enemies underestimate him. He studied the image on the screen for several seconds before nodding. “Medical?”

Mayda nodded. I should have thought of that. She gave her cousin a genuine smile. He’d been with her for about fifteen years as he came up the ranks, and by now, he knew her as well as he knew their clan’s goals. “Automated. Paper record only, one copy for my eyes. No others. Treatment for things that won’t heal right, quickly, and on their own.” Mayda allowed herself a thin smile. “Try not to hurt him too much, but if you can scare him shitless, I’ll be pleased.”

Her cousin considered then nodded firmly. “Worth the risk,” he said very, very softly.

“Yes.” She wondered if Jaynos had ever thought to resent her. He was sharp enough to rule, but no one had ever considered putting him forward because the roundness of his face and the flatness of his feature made most people think him stupid. There were candidates coming up behind her, just in case, but Jaynos would fall with her if she failed.

He had a beautiful voice when given the opportunity to sing. Their clan didn’t value that.

Only the drive to power.

“Collar him.” She didn’t usually ask for that. Usually she wanted her bedmates to realize quickly that being with her wouldn’t be particularly unpleasant, would in fact be better than their other options. The Prince is unlikely to be grateful for space enough to lie down or the opportunity to wash. He will probably understand the potential price, and I don’t have time to work on him with kindness.

Her cousin’s eyes narrowed. That, combined with his frown, made him look viciously dangerous. The effect was amplified by the fact that his facial features looked-- and had from childhood-- as if they’d been rearranged by a few too many fist fights.

Most people think he’s a thug. He could be when it was useful, and right now, it was. Mayda hoped that, once their plans came to fruition, she could find him work that didn’t rely on that.

After a moment he said, “Someone might notice the… differences in how we treat him.”

She heard the question in the statement. She shrugged. “Better that than someone being certain. Perhaps… If they don’t know who he is--” She glanced at the screen. “--a personal grudge might be believable. Mine or yours.

"We haven’t processed them yet, so there’s no name in our records.” She smiled, showing teeth. “And High Command has already said that the prisoners are mine. We’ll detour to our home system and leave them there. Who they used to be doesn’t matter.” She let her expression ask if he thought that would serve.

He smiled and bowed. “We’ll inventory them, then. No names, just numbers, general physical descriptions, and whatever we can pry out of them about their skills.”

Mayda didn’t say anything for several seconds. “No permanent physical damage, but I won’t object to the crew… enjoying the bounty of our success.” They’d taken about four hundred prisoners, men and women both, from the dying Pynrian ship before they stripped it of everything else they could move. She’d considered trying to tow it to in for study, but it was an older class, and if it had anything unusual in the way of weapons or propulsion or defense, the crew hadn’t used it in to defend themselves.

I wonder who the Prince pissed off to end up out here, in that ship, without escort? It might matter. It might not. Maybe someone was hoping he’d die.

Her cousin took half a step toward the door then turned back. “Are you going to want to give any of the other prisoners, ah, personal attention?”

She glanced at the monitor. “Possibly…” She reset the monitor to wide view then stood. “You know my taste. Anyone who might appeal, just put them in isolation. I’ll take a look later and decide.” An idea occurred to her-- “When we off load the prisoners, keep several on board. It will be a little less noteworthy that I’m keeping a pet if we have others.”

He bowed. This time, he left without turning back.