Location: Course IV Space Station, Imperial Space
There was a dead man in the cheap two-hour minimum motel room.
Merlin verified the crooked numbers hanging on the door before walking inside. The body was an inconvenience, but he could work around it.
Three-twenty-eight was a corner room, and the neon sign right outside the window painted the walls in pastel colours so candy-sweet they made his teeth hurt. The noisy flicker of the sign was distracting enough to keep the motel patrons from looking too closely at the stains on the patterned brown duvet of the hastily-made bed, though the people who came here didn't tend to care about the filth they were fucking in.
Merlin kept clear of the window. He didn't turn on the lights. He didn't need them.
The man was flat on his back, staring up at the ceiling with glassy eyes, and there was a hole the size of a jai alai ball in his chest, marring the otherwise pristine off-the-rack suit that Coyotes and Snakeheads typically favoured -- cheap, anonymous and disposable. The killing shot had been cauterized by the heat of the laser blast, and the low-quality fabric blend of the suit had melted around the edges.
Merlin scanned the room carefully. Not everyone had the Sterlings to afford the smuggling fee for their illegal emigration out of the Imperial space, and sometimes it was paid out as a literal pound of flesh. There was no pound of flesh here, for which Merlin was grateful, but that didn't mean there weren't other ways to pay. The man might have come here for a quick shag -- one of many -- as part of the payment due.
He spotted none of the expected paraphernalia. There was no protective foam. No lubricants -- not that Coyotes bothered with anyone else's comforts but their own. No condoms. And most people would use condoms, particularly on a trading spaceport of this size. No one could be completely certain that their partners had all the mandated shots against sexually-transmitted diseases and had access to the inoculations that were free everywhere else in the Empire. That was why there were Safe Sex Machines on every floor of the building, dispensing protective kits and broad-spectrum multi-species morning-after pills.
The dispensers probably accounted for the majority of the motel's profits.
The only thing out of place in the room was the body. And the body, when it had been alive, hadn't been meeting anyone here for a quick and dirty fuck, or there would have been some sort of hint that it was well underway.
This was a job. The man had been meeting someone to take them off-planet. Either it was a direct trip, or this Coyote had been just one inconsequential link in a long chain that would whisk his client away to parts unknown.
If Merlin were being honest with himself, it was a relief to come to this address and find a dead body. He'd known that something was wrong from the second that the specifications in his contract was changed. The body in the room was merely confirmation of the clusterfuck he'd walked into.
He scanned the room again and moved away from the closed door. He picked a spot out of direct line of sight from the windows but would still afford him an escape route if he needed one.
One surprise was enough. Merlin had no intention of setting himself up as an easy target -- there might be a CorpsCops sniper in the building across from the motel, waiting for a shadow to drift across the window. And if CorpsCops were about to burst through the door, Merlin could always crash out the window.
It was a long way down, but he had survived longer falls.
When someone wanted to hire an assassin, they left a message on an anonymous message board. It didn't matter which message board as long as a few key phrases were used to alert the booking agents of the incoming job. The code used depended on the type of job, the degree of difficulty, the amount they were willing to pay, the need for discretion. A few agents wouldn't touch public assassinations, even with a long-distance sniper rifle equipped to counteract the curvature of the planet, but they might accept quick subway knifings in an out-of-the-way backworld with low security. Some agents were particularly protective of their stable of assassins and refused targets with military experience or a background in self-defence, not wanting their killers to be injured and taken off the active list.
Other agents refused complicated jobs, because with complications came discovery, manhunts, arrests, even death -- and not of the intended target, either. It was common sense to refuse jobs from clients willing to pay a fee disproportionate to the profile of the target and the difficulty of the assignment.
Someone had been very careful when they worded their requests on the anonymous forums. The job had required a very specific skill set. The use of a weapon normally difficult to obtain and too unstable for regular use, for one thing, and that criteria alone narrowed the pool of potential assassins. The kill was simple and clean, which made it appealing for even the most experienced killer -- it was nice to have it easy, sometimes. The pay was out of proportion with the intended target, but the location was close to the outer rim of Imperial space and heavily patrolled, with a substantial armed police presence on the space station. The client didn't care if the target was found dead, as long as the murder couldn't be tracked back to them. The client had even done all the footwork and provided the target's movement patterns, past, present and future.
All that the assassin needed to do was pull the trigger.
Simple. Clean. Easy.
All the other agents had passed on the job. Somehow, it had landed in the lap of one of Merlin's contacts. And after the awkward anonymous introduction and tap dance, Merlin was provided with a detailed file on the target, right down to the address where he would be and at what time.
The dossier had neglected to mention the body, but Merlin couldn't really find fault in that. In his profession, bodies had an annoying habit of popping up unexpectedly.
But. There was always a but.
No one paid obnoxious amounts of money on an assassin of Merlin's skill when they already knew where and when the target would show up. There was a certain appeal that came with hiring someone at his level -- the only thing they needed to provide was a name and a three-dimensional holo head shot, if one was available.
Merlin did all the dirty work. Usually.
He couldn't understand why the client hadn't hired an expendable goon for this particular job -- a straight kill in the Red Light district of space station Course IV. It would have been cheaper, and just as untraceable.
But now, Merlin knew. The client had been too well-prepared. Too well-informed. Too rich, perhaps, if they could afford Merlin.
He'd been set up.
If Merlin were a smart man, he would get out of there before the trap sprung. Instead, he stayed. He stayed because no one set him up and lived.
The contract promised a bonus if he made it look like a suicide, but there was a fat chance of that with another body in the room, unless he arranged it as some sort of forbidden tryst and soap-opera worthy double-suicide. The contract required that Merlin use a Walter PK-90cs for the assassination, which had originally struck Merlin as overkill until he remembered why the weapon had been pulled from the market a decade ago. There was a defect in its construction -- it didn't just kill its target dead, but it blew up and took half a city block with it afterward.
No half-decent CorpsCops investigator would believe that the target had killed himself with it, even if it was an ultimate guarantee of instant death if a shot to the braincase failed to do the deed. It took too much work to find a Walter PK-90cs, particularly these days. It was much easier to obtain one of the newer models. For example, the Walter PK-1100 could be purchased at the closest shady alley anywhere across the galaxy, and it had a significantly decreased nuclear explosion probability in its design.
What suicide would go to such lengths for a kill weapon?
This particular Walter PK-90cs -- the one that Merlin had acquired as an afterthought -- had been scavenged from a trustworthy gunrunner. It was heavily modified -- the defect corrected, the blast range narrowed to the diameter of a pin-head.
Merlin generally disapproved of getting blown up and taking innocent civilians along for the ride. On that same principle, he also hated messy kills.
That was why he definitely wasn't going to use the gun that had come with the assignment package. That Walter PK-90cs had been modified too, but the alterations were subtle, almost microscopic. Merlin wasn't stupid. If it wasn't on the cusp of blowing up with its next killing shot, it had been rigged to ensure that it would blow up.
It wasn't just a set-up. Put all the facts together, and Merlin smelled a trap.
Oh, it wouldn't be the first time that the police enforcers with of the Imperial Conglomerate of Corporations tried to capture him with an elaborate set-up, but this…
This was different, somehow. More personal.
The lock beeped faintly and the door swung open. The target had arrived.
The man reached blindly for the old-fashioned switch and shut the door behind him in the same movement. The cheap overhead fluorescents flickered before bathing the room in a faint blue hue. The man's attention was immediately drawn to the body.
"Oh no. Joon!" The man walked over to Joon and groaned he crouched beside him. His hands were sure as they examined the body, but the clinical determination faded to helplessness, because no amount of medical attention could help a man who had a large, gaping hole in his chest.
The target's shoulders sagged. His head tilted back and he closed his eyes. He exhaled a heavy sigh. There was a flicker of fear on his face, a glimpse of panic, but he held it back, somehow.
He made several aborted attempts to frisk the man before caving in to whatever desperation was driving him and emerged triumphant with a pair of glossy, opal-sheened cards.
Merlin tilted his head. He'd been wrong. No Coyote that he knew of would bother with tickets to an inter-galactic cruiser when smuggling live bodies. It was easier to stow their cargo in the locked pit of a trawler -- and maybe half of them would survive the journey, but Coyotes wouldn't care about that because they would have already received their payment up front.
The man stood up with difficulty and turned around. He froze when he saw Merlin.
His eyes widened with recognition -- not of Merlin himself, but what he represented. His body trembled with flight-or-fight. There was a white-knuckled grasp on those opalTickets. He didn't scream.
Either the target had paid a fortune to travel in the equivalent of Executive Class, he was someone important and worth the risk, or the dead man wasn't a Coyote.
Only after several long, strangled seconds did the man glance at the door. He made no move for it. All told, he had a better chance of diving out the window to escape, but there would be no surviving the fall.
Slowly, the man's shoulders slumped, accepting defeat.
Something was very wrong. This might be a man trying to escape the draconian Conglomerate regime, but he hadn't gone to a Coyote to do it. Whoever this man was, he almost acted as if he had been expecting this.
Merlin's targets -- if they happened to be so lucky to see him before they died -- always begged for their lives. They did not say, "Please, if you must, do make it quick."
"I didn't kill him," Merlin said instead. His voice was muffled behind his mask. The only thing the man could see of him were his eyes.
"That doesn't change that you're here to kill me," the target said. His voice was surprisingly steady.
Merlin inclined his head in assent, but he didn't raise the gun. He didn't like guns, anyway. Never had.
The package on his target had been precisely sufficient -- enough information to determine that he wasn't a threat, what his movements were, and no more. The man's three-dee hologram hadn't done him justice; it had been lifted off an industry card, stony-faced and expressionless like a passport photo.
He was older than he had been in the photograph, with shoulder-length white-blond hair in a middle part that fell in faint waves. His eyes were sharp with the sort of wisdom that only a long, hard life could impart, but kind and gentle and surrounded in pronounced laugh lines. He wasn't laughing now, and despite the situation, he held himself straight, proud, stoic.
He was wearing a Physician's uniform.
Merlin had killed high-ranking government officials, military leaders, diplomats, courtiers, royal members of the many Houses across the Empire. He had killed the leaders of terrorist organizations and criminal families, renowned thieves who didn't know well enough to keep their fingers to themselves, kidnappers who had gone after the well-loved child of a wealthy and influential businessman. He had hunted Pirates. He had gone after other assassins.
He did not go after cheating spouses -- that was work for lesser assassins. He didn't get involved in business espionage -- though that had happened over his objections at least twice. He didn't concern himself with petty crime or assignments where people were wanted dead simply because they annoyed someone else. For one thing, it was a waste of his skills. For another, not many people could afford his fees.
Not many people would pay his fees to kill a Physician.
"Why do they want to kill you?" Merlin asked, surprising himself. He never asked. He wasn't supposed to care.
"Because I'm a Healer," the man said. His voice was quiet and reassuring.
"Of course you are," Merlin said, as if that wasn't already obvious. "You're a doctor."
"I'm a Physician," he corrected. Then, more earnestly, he said, "But I am a Healer."
His eyes gleamed a pale gold for an instant, giving proof.
"Oh. I see," Merlin said, understanding. He was a magic user. Then, for a lack of anything else to say, he added, "Sucks to be you."
"You have no idea," the target said, his words accompanied by a shaky laugh, more for past memories than the present situation. He looked down at the tickets in his hand. Two tickets; had Joon been meant to escort him? It would have been a good cover -- two men traveling together, a father and his son. The man didn't seem particularly grief-stricken, and there was probably no more familiarity between the Healer and the man on the floor beyond a business arrangement. If anything, he seemed mournful, in the so close and yet so far sort of way that Merlin had seen many times before, on other targets.
The silence stretched.
Merlin let it; he was trying to figure out what had gone wrong and why. He understood that someone had paid his enormous fee for killing this physician, but why would they go to the extreme of sending along a sabotaged gun and add a request to make the death look like a suicide? Setting up suicides, especially with another body in the room, took time. Why was Merlin even here? Why was he being set up?
And he was being set up.
No one ever took jobs where the target was a magic user. Merlin might have gone against the gifted members of the royal Houses, but those were known quantities. Other magic users were different. Their particular talents were never as well-researched or as well-documented as the magic of the Houses. Attacking a magic user was too dangerous for him. For anyone, really. All it took was a perceptive magic user, a carefully worded spell, and that was it. Desperate magic users fighting to survive could be deadlier than assassins -- even against assassins with magic.
Merlin wasn't a fool. A Physician with magic could kill as surely as they could heal.
"I notice that you are not killing me," the man said.
"No," Merlin agreed. He holstered his modified Walter PK-90cs, hidden under his inner vest, and took out the sabotaged gun.
"Something's not right about this," Merlin said. He reached along the wall, moving slowly and carefully, and turned off the lights. Almost immediately, the room was set aglow with pinks and soft green neon lights. He followed the far wall until he was next to the window. He crouched down, sparing a second to glance at the bedside clock. He was running behind the client's schedule -- a micromanaged, on-the-second requirement of Merlin's actions and movements.
He looked out the window.
"You didn't kill Joon," the man said, but it wasn't a question. It was more of curious confirmation, a slow understanding. Merlin didn't answer him.
They were three floors above the spaceport deck. The dome overhead was black, imitating night; the streets below were in festival-brights day in and day out. A mob of people going in both direction serpentined around each other, pausing when their path was blocked off. A street vendor hawked fresh-grilled meat of dubious provenance, a shyster sold illegal knock-off wares. A dealer shook hands with a customer, the exchange of drugs and untraceable credits occurring in the blink of an eye. Half-naked men and women undulated in front of their workplaces, teasing newcomers and regulars alike to strip joints and back-rooms for private shows.
On the surface, it was a normal evening in the Red Light district of Course IV's spaceport. Merlin watched a little longer.
He spotted seven men coming toward the by-the-hour motel. Three men in two columns, following a leader. The CorpsCops were out of uniform, blending in with the civilians, but there was no shaking off or hiding the discipline of rigid structure and training.
Merlin watched them until he was certain that the CorpsCops were heading to this particular building before he stood up slowly. He was a little surprised to see that the Healer hadn't taken the opportunity to save himself.
"What is it?"
"You should've run."
"I have the distinct impression that I would survive longer if I stayed with you," he said.
It was the most absurd thing that Merlin had ever heard in his entire life. He barked a short laugh, and the man gave him a curious look.
"Someone put a contract on your head. You're not safe with anyone, least of all the assassin who was waiting for you," Merlin said.
"And yet, you have not done the deed," the Healer said. "That is a point in my favour."
Merlin ignored him and studied his sabotaged gun. His fingers were gloved, and the fine adjustment that he needed to make took more time than he was comfortable wasting. Once done, he left the gun on the bed. He headed for the door, conscious of the Healer on his heels, and glanced both ways before walking down the hall.
Merlin reached for his hood, pulling it further over his head. It was sufficiently cowl-like that it hid the fact that most of his face was masked. He hadn't planned on being seen by anyone, which meant that as soon as he stepped out of the hall, someone would see him, take in how he was dressed, and figure out who and what he was.
It was a problem that was easily solved, but that would come later, after Merlin had gotten away from the room where he'd left the gun. The client's Walter PK-90cs was rigged to explode, but he'd limited the actual blast damage to a low charge, so that only, oh, this floor would go.
Merlin burst through the fire escape, setting off the alarm, and descended the stairs two, three at a time. The patrons of the no-name quickie-fuck motel would stumble out soon and make a beeline for the emergency exits, and Merlin didn't want to be trapped in the mob trying to get out. The crowd would provide cover against the CorpsCops, though, and that was part of the plan.
The new plan, anyway. Merlin's original escape route involved the rooftops, but he didn't think the Healer was up to leaping across four-meter chasms several levels above ground. The spaceport's lower gravity might save them both from a fall, but it wouldn't save them from broken necks.
The man hurried after Merlin. He kept up despite stumbling here and there. Merlin caught the Healer and twirled him away from the second floor emergency exit just as it burst open and several harried men and women in various stages of undress streamed out, clambering noisily on the metal stairs. By the time they reached the first floor, Merlin had relieved someone's dark brown trench coat and pulled it on.
They bypassed the crowd that was attempting to squeeze through the narrow lobby doors and located the rear exit. Along the way, Merlin appropriated an ugly black pull-over and a cap, shoving them at his target.
Only, the Healer wasn't his target anymore. Merlin supposed he should use the man's name.
"Put them on, Gaius," he said, and Gaius stared at him with round eyes. Whether it was in surprise that Merlin knew his name, or that he had used it, Merlin wasn't sure. He didn't care.
They went out the motel's service doors, through an alley that reeked of a blend of rotting garbage and stale sex, and were at least half a block away when the abandoned Walter PK-90cs' half-powered battery cells overloaded and exploded.
Gaius startled and shouted in surprise, turning to face the motel they'd left behind. Merlin grabbed Gaius' arm roughly and kept him moving. The space station was large, and it was a bureaucratic nightmare whenever CorpsCops ordered a complete shutdown -- and that was exactly what they would do now. Every ship in port would be hurriedly disconnecting their access lines before they were locked in place while the CorpsCops tracked down whoever and whatever had been behind the explosion.
Merlin had heard of ships trapped in a lockdown for thirty-two days before the CorpsCops caught a ship stowaway. Merlin had no intention of being stuck on Course IV for that long. He had other jobs lined up, and they were all far away from here.
"We have twenty-four minutes before the lockdown is official," Merlin said, guiding Gaius through the streets. Merlin knew where he was going and he knew how to get there quick. He bypassed the first few elevator routes -- those would be both crowded and among the first that the CorpsCops would monitor -- and headed for the end of the queue. "Less than that before your ship finds out that the lockdown's coming and throws its lines to get out of here. Move it."
Merlin kept Gaius from breaking into a run, but only just; a CorpsCops squad ran past, heading toward the Red Light district. Merlin bowed his head and curled protectively around Gaius, and anyone looking would dismiss them as a frightened couple trying to get away.
"You said to hurry," Gaius hissed.
"Without drawing attention," Merlin clarified.
"And how does one do that without the other?" Gaius asked, tripping when Merlin shoved him into a free elevator ahead of other waiting passengers. Merlin blocked anyone else from following them in, ignoring the shoves and indignant shouts until the lift began to rise. He pried open the control panel with a hardened diamond-fibre knife barely the length of his thumb, the blade's edge sharp enough to split the proverbial atom. The panel was glued on. Merlin resorted to drastic tactics and cut through the reinforced panel, using a bit of muscle to wedge it in a corner. He sliced his way around the cover and pulled it off in a chaotic flicker of sparks and flashing alarms.
He sheathed his knife and disabled the siren in less than three seconds. It took a little longer to reconfigure the system to bypass every floor that was calling for a lift, and increased the speed until they were accelerated first vertically, then horizontally toward the ship port.
"Oh, that's how," Gaius remarked, side-eyeing him suspiciously. "Won't they notice the alarm?"
"A raging fire and an explosion that might have compromised the station's integrity," Merlin said, holding up one hand, palm-up. He raised the other hand and balanced the two as if his hands were an uneven scale. "A malfunctioning elevator. Which do you think the station's administrators are more concerned with right now?"
He didn't wait for Gaius to answer. Merlin dropped both hands and glanced at the location read-out. They were nearly at the docks. Merlin gestured.
"Give me the tickets."
Gaius' hand instinctively covered the pocket where he had put them. Merlin's gloved hand remained outstretched. Either Gaius would give Merlin the tickets or he would take them from Gaius; Merlin knew exactly how long it would take to check them out and re-scan them, if necessary.
"You really didn't kill Joon?"
"Dead when I got there," Merlin said, and for reasons he couldn't explain, he continued, "My assignment was to set up a suicide. Not a murder-suicide, never mind one that would blow me up along with it."
"The gun," Gaius realized, nodding with slow understanding. "But you --"
"Wasn't my gun. They wanted me to use it to kill you." He caught Gaius' dubious expression and said, "First rule of survival: if someone gives you something, no strings attached, don't trust it."
"That includes the tickets?"
Gaius was conflicted, but he handed over the two slim opalTickets. Merlin studied one, then the other. "What about you?" he asked.
"If I am to follow your rules, I shouldn't trust you, either."
Merlin's chuckle was dry. The lift slowed down and came to a stop. The door opened with a sliding thump. "No, you shouldn't. Stay close to me."
Merlin motioned for Gaius to follow, using his body as a shield against the crowd that had surged into the spaceport over the last few minutes. The transit docks were busy even under normal circumstances, but with the alarms blaring through the station, everyone had surged toward the docks in a mad scramble to get aboard before they were stranded by a security lockdown.
The crowd was thick enough that Gaius struggled to keep up. Merlin felt a rare pang of concern and grabbed Gaius' arm, pulling him along.
The tickets were for the Lady Hiamela, a luxurious liner that had exactly two categories of passengers -- Old Money and New Money. As far as transports went, especially one intended as covert transport, the ostentatious ship was a good choice, because not only would CorpsCops overlook it as a potential recourse for anyone trying to escape, they would think twice about searching the premises. Invading the privacy of the rich and famous was tantamount to risking their commissions.
The Hiamela wouldn't launch before they had enough passengers on board and they would stay in port as long as they dared before cutting the access lines. The main problem was going to be getting past the throng of people who were battering past the ship's security to get onboard, whether or not they had a ticket.
Merlin spotted an empty ticket counter and pulled Gaius in that direction.
"But the ship's --" Gaius started to point, but Merlin kept moving.
He glanced around. The ticket sellers were closed, the terminals on a station-mandated auto-lockdown. The staff were probably among the first to climb onboard the various docked ships the instant the alarm rang through the station, printing themselves their own billets before making a run for it. Emergencies on space stations could turn the most altruistic man into a selfish bastard.
Merlin pulled out the keyboard and typed in a command. The terminal beamed to life.
He scanned one ticket. The name on the ticket was Jakkob van der Hoesen. Merlin changed the name to a nondescript N. Baird and updated the manifest, repeating the same with the second ticket before setting a scramble through the system to wipe out any and every trace of the original names.
If Merlin's client had known enough about Gaius to detail his whereabouts down to the precise minute when he would arrive, there was no doubt that they would also know the name under which Gaius had been intended to make his escape. Between the name change, the scramble-virus in the system, and the station-wide chaos, Merlin was making Gaius even more difficult to find.
"Let's go," Merlin said. Gaius had questions, and a lot of them, but it took a stern look from Merlin before Gaius clamped his mouth shut, at least for now..
"The name on my passport --"
"I'll fix that once we're onboard."
"Won't they check during boarding?"
Merlin shot Gaius a glance. Merlin raised a brow and gestured around them in a does it look like they're taking the time for that? handwave. "They'll take care of the security check once the ship's not in a rush to get out of the port."
The problem now was getting to the ship itself. Merlin was not above injuring people to get them out of his way, and when one person fell or stumbled, other people did, too. They were three deep in the line with the armed security guards in sight when Gaius elbowed him, hard.
"Your mask," Gaius hissed.
Merlin shook his head. There were security cameras everywhere; he was not going to reveal his face to anyone who might be scanning the feeds looking for Gaius. There was a chance that the guards wouldn't let them through if they saw his mask. It was a situation with a simple solution.
They were two people in when Merlin turned around and whispered, "They're closing the gates. They're not letting anyone else through."
It was a terrible, completely underhanded thing to say. No one wanted to get caught on station -- not the rich who might have something to hide, and definitely not the people who hoped to purchase a ticket either at the gate or once they were onboard.
Merlin's false rumour rippled through the crowd. The couple behind him suddenly pushed forward like a wave threatening to crash through the ship's door, shoving the people ahead of them -- Gaius and Merlin, and several others -- through before the overwhelmed guards scrambled back and activated the force field.
Gaius gave Merlin a dirty look when Merlin helped him to his feet. One of the guards radioed the bridge -- "… may as well cast off, crowd's going mad. We're not going to get anyone else onboard at this rate. But we got the minimum…" -- and collected their shimmering tickets after confirming their names against the ship's manifest.
Merlin waited until everyone wasn't looking, calmly pilfered one of the handheld security consoles, and escorted Gaius from the loading bay and into the ship proper, where smiling men and women in pressed uniforms gestured generously with their arms toward the lifts and handed out bunk assignments.
Gaius huffed, nervous. "They are going to check our passports and realize we aren't who we say we are. They will throw us out of the nearest airlock. The authorities will be alerted. They will arrest us. They will kill me --"
"Hm," Merlin said, stepping onto the lift. It wasn't until it started to move that he pushed his hood from his head and dragged his hand through the ephemeral mask across his face, dispelling it.
Gaius glanced at him. Gaius did a double-take and gaped. Merlin ran his fingers through his hair and raised a brow. Gaius mouth opened and closed twice, before he scrambled for a small measure of decorum. "I didn't expect that you would be… young. You certainly don't look like a killer."
"That's kind of the point," Merlin said, pulling Gaius after him when the lift came to a smooth stop. The ship's valets took a look at their boarding package and pointed them down a corridor. They were very nearly at the end of the hall. Merlin scanned their access pass and pushed Gaius inside. "Give me your ID."
Gaius hesitated, but he handed over an intergalactic passport. It was freshly-issued, with just enough weathering at the edges to mark Gaius as a frequent traveler. A superb forgery, definitely top quality. Merlin moved to the table, sat down, and shoved the place settings out of the way to make space for his tools.
The borrowed handheld console -- he would dump it somewhere in the main activities room later. The passport card. His diamond-fibre knife. A pair of tweezers. A stiletto blade.
And he got to work. He pried out the minuscule dot chip without damaging the passport card, cracked the handheld console open carefully, and placed it directly on the scanner, accessing the program controls.
"Why are you doing this?" Gaius asked.
Merlin didn't need to look up to know that Gaius was standing exactly four-point-two metres away, that he hadn't removed the coat or the hat that Merlin had stolen for him to wear as a disguise, and that his arms were crossed in a stance that was probably meant to be disapproving. The disapproval didn't last, because Gaius was bracing against the adrenaline crash draining what little reserves of strength he had.
"You should sit down before you collapse," Merlin remarked.
"I believe I will stand," Gaius said.
"Suit yourself." Merlin spared a precious second to watch Gaius' knees give out. Gaius caught himself and went to the far end of the cabin, collapsing on the sofa, heaving a heavy sigh.
"I'm curious. How well were you paid for this job?" Gaius asked, filling the silence.
"Very well," Merlin said.
"I suppose you'll have to return the fee, now? Or is that not done in your line of business?"
"It was cash on delivery," Merlin said, falling silent while he handled the more delicate work. When he spoke again, it was with a dismissive shrug. "Amateurs ask for half up front. I require payment when the job's done. Of course, this means some people do try to stiff me, but most seem to realize what a bad idea that is."
"So, you are not being… compensated for saving my life," Gaius said, and when Merlin glanced up, it was to a raised eyebrow full of doubt. "I will ask again. Why did you change your mind?"
Merlin sighed. He shrugged again.
Gaius' eyebrow rose even higher. Merlin frowned and resisted the urge to glance over his shoulder, in case there was a misbehaving child behind him who was well deserving of the physician's eyebrow.
"While I believe wholeheartedly that you were a legitimate target and that someone definitely wants you dead," Merlin said, his gloved fingers darting over the touch keypad, "I was set up."
Someone had obviously misjudged his level of skill. Or, perhaps, they were testing his level of skill. Either way, as soon as the luxury liner arrived at its next destination, Merlin was going to track down his contact and get to the bottom of this. He had lived with a price on his head since he was twelve years old; that price had gone up over the last twenty years. He was at peace with that Damocles' Sword hanging over his head, but he did not appreciate being taken for an idiot, or that someone had come close to achieving their goal.
Plus, eliminating him with an explosive device?
"So you are not doing this for me," Gaius asked. Merlin paused and turned his head minutely. There was a strange combination of confusion and evaluation in Gaius' tone, as if he fully expected Merlin to have had a change of heart for one reason or another.
"'Course not. What do you take me for?" Merlin didn't bother to stifle his mocking snort. "Someone who cares? In case you haven't noticed, bleeding hearts don't live long, not these days."
He hadn't saved Gaius because Gaius seemed like a nice old man. He'd aborted on the job because more pressing matters had come to his attention.
Like getting rid of the idiot who had made an attempt on Emrys' life in a futile quest for the large silver Sterling bounty that the Empire had set on his head. Merlin would be doing a favour to the gene pool.
"Sad to say, but it's true. The gents who go into my chosen profession are hardly the altruistic sort. If your continued existence can serve to annoy my former client, I consider that a bonus," Merlin said. He added a second level of security to the passport -- it had been a professional forgery, but slightly sloppy now that he'd dug under the surface -- and ignored Gaius snort. Merlin concentrated. Removing the chip had been easy; replacing it was going to be difficult. He didn't have a magnifying glass, and with someone else in the room, he didn't dare tap into his magic to facilitate the placement. He would have to do it by hand, and that required absolute silence.
It took seven tries, but it was done. It was a passable job and it would hold up to most security sweeps. As long as Gaius didn't get himself captured by CorpsCops, he would be fine.
Merlin fished around in his body armour's multiple pockets until he came up for air with a small, flat circle no thicker than the blade of a knife. He pried it open and used the tweezers to scrape a minute amount of clear epoxy to seal the edges of the passport.
He swiped it twice through the console and confirmed the contents before sliding the card across the table to Gaius.
"For curiosity's sake," Merlin said, surprising himself again, because the main reason he'd managed to live this long, was because he had learned never to ask the wrong questions, "Why would someone put a contract on your head?"
Gaius stared at him for a long time, his brows pinched. "I'm a Healer," he said finally, as if that was supposed to mean something.
It didn't mean anything. Merlin gestured with his hand in frustration.
"You don't know?"
"Explain it to me. Use small words," Merlin said. He caught his reflection in a mirrored surface. He was going to need a change of clothes, and soon. His working gear made him stand out too much, but at least the additional layer of security afforded by his magic hadn't been needed and the jacket he'd stolen provided something of an illusion of normal clothing.
"Every Healer I know, including my beloved Alice, are missing," Gaius said. He waited, tilting his head as if this was significant enough to jog Merlin's memory, and everything would slot into place.
Merlin nodded at Gaius to continue.
"You really don't know," Gaius said. He held his breath and exhaled slowly. "This has been going on for months. There was an exposé on the news. The reporter was gunned down on camera and the broadcast censored. The Conglomerate is kidnapping and imprisoning all the Healers in the Empire."
Merlin turned slowly to look at Gaius, his brows furrowed. Merlin hadn't heard, but that didn't come as a surprise. He spent most of his free time training and teaching himself how to circumvent new obstacles. He didn't care about the news or politics. None of it applied to him, because, as far as the Empire was concerned, he didn't exist. He did his job, and that was it.
Merlin shouldn't care, and he told himself that he only continued to ask questions because someone had tried to kill him, too, and not because he was interested. "Why?"
"No one knows." Gaius shook his head and spread his hands. "I... I thought it would be best to be on my way before they tracked me down."
The door chime rang. A cheerful voice announced, "Passport control!" over the intercom.
Merlin stared at Gaius. Gaius stared back. Gaius' shoulders slumped and he went to answer the door.
While the Steward fussed over Gaius' passport and apologized for the inconvenience at the spaceport ,giving a cursory look over the false identification that Merlin handed over for a scan, Merlin couldn't shake one question from his mind.
What does this have to do with me? Why did they try to kill me, too?
Merlin was hardly a Healer. If anything, he was the extreme opposite.
He waited until the Steward was gone. He waited some more. He palmed his ID card before sliding it into one of his many pockets -- he would dispose of it later. It was no great loss; he had seven other ID cards with false identities on his person.
"How long have you been planning to leave? Who knew about your plans?"
"Several weeks. And no one," Gaius said. "One does not live as long as I have by sharing the fine details with anyone but those directly involved."
"So, only the people who set this up?"
Gaius inclined his head. "Of course."
"How was this planned out? Did you use your principal account or did you set up a dummy credit line? Did you meet in person, did someone follow you --" Merlin trailed off. He waved a hand in the air. "Not that it matters now."
Merlin considered leaving Gaius here, on the ship, alone, and that shocked him, that he was considering instead of doing exactly that.
Healers were calm, compassionate, highly empathic and sympathetic people. It was natural to want to help them and to trust them. But not Merlin. No. Merlin had learned through circumstances that he could never to trust anyone. He could not afford to go out of his way to help others, that he should help himself first. So, why was he even remotely considering staying with Gaius to ensure he went someplace safe? With no promise of monetary payment at the end?
Merlin sorted through all of his reasons for not leaving and settled on the most plausible. Someone had set him up. Someone had tried to kill him. There was a chance that if he followed this through, he'd find out why, and he'd find out who. That was the only reason. Not because Gaius was kind. Not because Gaius had decided to trust the man who had been waiting in a dingy motel room to kill him. Not because Gaius seemed a little out of his depth.
"So, someone made arrangements for you to escape. You purchased possibly-overpriced false identification. You were to meet a complete stranger in the roughest section of the station in a disreputable motel. He was to escort you to this ship."
Gaius nodded. "That is correct."
"I do not know," Gaius said, removing his hat and throwing it to the couch. He ran his hand through his hair. "The instructions that followed were vague. They told me that we would get picked up along the way."
Location: The Lady Hiamela, Luxury Cruise Liner, Imperial Space
"Well, this is going to be a problem."
The screen in the three-room suite had been jury-rigged to piggyback on the security cameras at the spaceport only because the portable console's screen was too small for everyone to huddle around. The situation at the docks had gone from green to DEFCON-ONE in less than thirty seconds, if the mad rush of crowds was anything to go by.
It was another five minutes before a red bar flashed across the top of the screen and a message ticket scrolled across the bottom.
Explosion Red Light district shut down all ring levels restrict movement Quadrant 1A locked down Quadrant 1B locked down --
Arthur raised a querying brow at Lance. Lance spread his hands in his trademarked I don't know, don't bother me, I'm working gesture, his head bowed over the terminal, his brow pinched in a frown that didn't suit him, and definitely didn't bode well at all.
This was far too familiar. More than once, the Excalibur, under guise of another name, had docked at an Imperial spaceport for a risky supply run, only to have the crew make a mad dash to their ship to decouple before the CorpsCops worked their way through the bureaucratic red tape and located the one individual who could approve a complete lockdown of the station and the docks. The Pirates knew what came next.
Lance's fingers tapped over the projected holographic keyboard -- Arthur wasn't sure what the tech-head was doing, but it had to be important, and he hoped that it had something to do with making sure that the docking clamps of the Lady Hiamela didn't engage until the last possible second. Perceval, rock-steady as usual, stood by the door, one hand on the gun tucked into his belt. Gwaine was vibrating with nervous energy, and Arthur was certain that the rest of his men, peppered through the ship, weren't doing much better.
Arthur tapped his communication device, opening up a private, coded channel. "Stand down, boys. Nothing that we can do at the present. Even if they didn't have a little act of terrorism to deal with, the Imperial Blues won't get a-board. For one thing, you know how the rich types are when it comes to other people pawing through their drawers. For another, I'm damned if we'll get locked here."
He looked pointedly in Lance's direction.
"I'm working on it," Lance said tersely, his voice carrying through the comms.
Arthur could feel the collective breath of relief of the Pirates throughout the ship. Sometimes all that was needed was a little reassurance from their Captain, some sort of indication that the situation was well in hand. Unfortunately, the situation was as far from being under control as it could get, but beggars couldn't be choosers. Arthur's crew had been forced to rely on more elaborate schemes of late, each with a greater degree of risk to his crew, and this latest venture was the riskiest of all. No one had liked it when Arthur said he would lead the mission himself, but no one else had volunteered to take charge, either.
"Gwaine. Quit your pacing and monitor the manifest. Let me know as soon as the package checks in."
"Aye-aye, Captain," Gwaine drawled, plopping himself on the plush sofa next to Lance, raising his hand and activating a holographic console. He accessed the ship's computer system, swiped his way through the rather paltry security measures, and thumbed his way through the files until he located the passenger list, the names greening out as they checked in.
"No sign of them yet," Gwaine said.
Arthur glanced at his chronometer. Even without the explosion and the inevitable swarm of people wanting to get away from the scene before they were rounded up by CorpsCops, Joon wouldn't have a whole lot of time to get to the docks. Still, Joon was quick and slippery and too clever by half; Arthur wouldn't put it past him to have made arrangements to meet the package at a more convenient location.
Joon had time. Not a lot of it. He might make it.
Arthur hoped that Joon had his head out of his arse, for once, because they couldn't afford not to have the package safe and sound. They were running out of options.
He turned around to stare at the docks' security feed and crossed his arms. The ship's public announcement system clicked on with chirpy and upbeat tropical music before a husky voice said, "Attention all passengers. The Lady Hiamela will be launching shortly. Please return to your quarters while the crew secures the leisure stations and prepares for the next leg of our journey. We will be arriving at our next destination --"
A different voice pitched in with, "-- Helemere I, the beautiful ocean planet of the Arcos 001024 Blue Star galaxy --"
"-- in four days. Access the travel routes, arrival times, and destination amenities using your in-room terminals --"
Arthur tuned it out and scanned the crowds on the screen. The angle was all wrong, the resolution terrible. How did any stationmaster expect to monitor the security of the ports when they could barely zoom in on someone's face?
He tapped the screen and skimmed through the different security feeds until he accessed a port camera aimed in the general direction of the luxury cruise liner. Like every other ship docked to the Course IV station, the entrance was blockaded off by a swarm of people trying to get onboard, whether or not they had tickets.
"Huh, that's weird," Gwaine said, and Arthur froze.
"I've told you before, never say those words in my hearing," Arthur said, turning around.
"Sorry, sorry. It's just that --" Gwaine chewed his lower lip, his fingers twitching in the air, the holographic display scrolling up at dizzying speeds, the words blurring together into a single strip of glowing light. "One second, Joon's ID is on the manifest. The next, it's gone."
"Gone?" Arthur frowned. "How can it be gone?"
"Gone. Just, gone. As in, poof," Gwaine said, making abracadabra pops with his hands before returning to the projected display. "And so's the package ID. Gone."
"The fuck?" Arthur scowled, and gestured. "Show me."
Gwaine thumbed a button on his wrist cuff and the holographic display brightened and grew in size, the screen flipping around for Arthur to access. Arthur looked for himself. It wasn't that he didn't believe Gwaine -- it was that the mere concept of passenger names being outright deleted from the database was so foreign as to be so completely unheard of when it came to anything under the Empire. The Empire was run by a suite of bureaucrats who were obsessed with recording data down to the tiniest detail, however unimportant; every Empire-registered ship and station ran on operating systems with audit trails on every single component. There were records on how many times someone flushed the loo, the number of revolutions of a lift engine, and the precise weight of a bottle of rum to make sure the bartenders weren't over-pouring.
The paper trail in the Empire was so preposterous, there was an entire Pirate Clan that specialized in getting rid of data. Permanently. It was harder than one would think, too, because there were always backups, and backups of the backups, and sometimes remote backups on a server on an arse-backward world where the pirates would have to make a personal appearance and hack the physical system proper. That Clan charged high prices for their work, and it was well worth it, particularly when the Pirates needed to make someone disappear.
The data couldn't just be gone. It could be forgotten, buried, replaced --
"The number of passengers hasn't changed," Arthur said.
"Oh, shite. You're right, hold on --" Gwaine appropriated the screen, shrinking it down in size. He opened another projection, and Arthur left him to do whatever it was that he was doing. His men knew their jobs; Arthur relied on their particular brand of innovation and creativity to keep their long track record of successful missions. And to keep them all alive, too, but that was a given.
"Something's going on," Perceval said, and Arthur studied the screen. There was a mad rush for the luxury liner, a ripple of panic through the crowd. Abruptly, the guards stepped to the relative safety of the entrance platform, several people scrambled forward, and the security field flickered to life to prevent more people from forcing their way through.
The airlock was shut with a decisive snap that Arthur couldn't hear over the muted feed, but it still echoed in harmony with the sound of Arthur's stomach sinking to the pit of his belly. The package hadn't made it on board.
"These names are new," Gwaine said, and Arthur looked up at the projected screen. They were greyed out, indicating that they hadn't been scanned and, therefore, weren't on board. "Well, not new new. According to the manifest, the name was changed system-weeks ago, which makes no sense, because the tickets were only issued a few days --"
"Virus. Must have set a worm through the system to burrow the data as deep as it could get to throw off the CorpsCops," Lance said, not looking up. "Arthur, the ship's detaching from the dock."
"Fuck," Arthur hissed, running a hand over his mouth. He exchanged glances with Perceval, who looked as grim as he felt.
"Holy shite," Gwaine said, laughing with surprise and delight. Arthur turned around and scanned the projected screen. The two new names on the manifest were green. "They made it."
"Or maybe not," Arthur said. "Could Joon have changed their names?"
"It's Joon," Lance said, finally looking up. He threw in an eyeroll for good measure, in case his droll tone wasn't enough to sum up how he felt about the question. "The same Joon who can't program a kettle to make a decent cup of tea. In other words, no, not even if he had a pistol against to his head."
"Hack the ship's security," Arthur ordered. "I want eyes on the last few people to come on board. When their passports get scanned, I want to see them."
The main screen flipped from the buzzing snow resulting from the broken connection with the station's docks to a narrow bird's-eye view of the boarding bay. The recording was rewound to minutes before the rush spread through the docking station and forced the luxury liner to stop accepting passengers. Arthur stood there, arms crossed, and studied every face that walked in.
No Joon. No package.
The time stamp approached the point where the panic in the crowd had crested, and several people were shoved through; that was when the security crew had stopped looking at passports and grabbed every boarding pass they could without inspection. Arthur studied an older couple who were breaking every social convention by flaunting their grey hair. He watched the movements of a few nouveau-riche in extravagant clothing. His eyes went from face to face, scanning them for any resemblance to Joon.
Or their package.
The airlock was shut, there was no sign of either, and he'd seen every face except --
"Go back ten seconds," Arthur said.
The screen flickered.
The image stopped on a medium-sized, broad-and-bony shouldered figure in a too-large overcoat and a beat-up cap. Besides him was a taller person, the body slight, head and face covered by a heavy hood. Arthur tapped the screen. "These two. Where did they go?"
"Scanning," Lance said. "It's going to take some time."
With cameras trained down every corridor, stairwell, lift, communal area, and staff-only sections, there were hundreds of minutes of video being captured by the ship at any given moment. Lance pulled up the ship schematics, located the cameras in every section, and synched up the time frame, scrolling through the footage until he'd tracked the couple's movements, splicing them from one camera to the next.
A hostess handed them their travel package. A valet checked their room number and led them to a lift to the correct level, and down a corridor to the next-to-last room, letting them inside.
The entire time, the shorter of the two never took off the cap, but the physical dimensions were close enough to their package that Arthur was convinced that they weren't completely out of luck. The question mark was still the other person. The man had removed his cowl, but somehow, frustratingly, managed to keep his back to the camera, or his face angled in such a way that it was impossible to get a clear look. The only thing that Arthur could tell for sure was that the man had short black hair that stood up in a mess of tangles and curls.
"That's not Joon," Gwaine said unnecessarily.
There were no cameras inside the suites -- the passengers paid extra for the luxury of privacy for a reason -- and there was no sound pickup in the corridor. If they were talking, it was impossible to make out.
"What do we do?" Gwaine asked.
"We wait," Arthur said, because there wasn't much that they could do. The Lady Hiamela was in orbit around the station and would remain around the station until its intended departure time, lingering only on the slim hope that the docks would be reopened and they could pick up more passengers before their travel window closed. Arthur didn't dare act until the ship had reached the rendezvous coordinates. It would be stupid to hijack the ship without backup and an exit strategy, no matter how many men he had on board.
They waited. Lance locked the main screen to the camera right outside the corridor of their package's location. It wasn't long before a Steward came walking down the hall, knocking on everyone's door to check their passports. Arthur watched, but between the stoop-shouldered Steward standing in the doorway and the camera's poor angle, he couldn't see what was inside.
"Got them," Gwaine said, but it was Lance who put the passport photos side by side on the main screen.
On the left was Gaius Wiltshire, formerly traveling under the pseudonym of Jakkob van der Hoesen, and now masquerading as the gender-neutral current ticket holder, N. Baird. His wavy silver locks were pulled away from his face and his cheeks were sunken and sallow, because passport offices never took three-dees or flat photographs if they couldn't also double as prison photos, too. Arthur nodded to himself, satisfied and relieved; their package was on board, and that was the hardest part. Getting Gaius where he needed to be, safe and sound, was going to be a breeze in comparison.
The man that he was travelling with was definitely not Joon. The name on the passport matched the name on the ticket -- Niall ap Torron -- but was probably as fake as Captain Olaf's left eye. The face on the screen was narrower, and --
That was as much as Arthur could make out. The image was blurred.
"Damn it, what is it going to take to get a good look at this guy?" Arthur asked, throwing a hand at the screen. He had no idea who this man was. Why would Joon have given his ticket up to someone else? How much trouble was this Niall going to be when it came time to take Gaius off the ship? Where was Joon, in any case?
Arthur had all these questions and more, but the one he really cared about was who is this pillock?
No one answered him right away. Gwaine shut down his wrist console and shrugged. "We could hijack the ship."
"We could, couldn't we?" Arthur said, smirking. "There's an idea. Let me think. No, yes. I'm warming up to it."
For the first time since they came onboard, Perceval grinned.
Arthur clapped his hands together. "Let's get ready."
They might be Pirates, but that didn't mean that there was any reason to be sloppy. Efficiency was the name of the game. While their primary goal was still to secure Gaius and relocate him to more secure Space, it didn't mean that Arthur's crew couldn't have themselves a few liberties while they were at it. A luxury liner like this one, carrying hundreds of ladies and gentlemen with wealth of honest and dubious provenance, went far in sating a Pirate's hunger for sparkly jewels and shiny loot. They would have to deal with population control, disarming the security, and disabling the ship's passive defences, but first, of course, they would have to make certain that no one managed to get a Mayday out to the Conglomerate ships that routinely patrolled the shipping and tourist routes.
He called in his men, had everyone check their positions and their weapons, and bade his time. He relaxed marginally when the public announcement system chimed in that they were now underway, and glanced at the in-room terminal as it showed the space station receding in the distance until it was nothing more than a grey blob against a black, starry sky.
"Funny thing about that explosion," Lance said, because he was still crouched over his console and piggybacking on the ship's communication lines to Course IV, "The CorpsCops figure that the epicentre was right where Joon was supposed to be."
"Is he dead?" Gwaine asked.
"Going by the blast yield, if he was there, it'll be more like he was vaporized. Him and about seventy other people," Lance said, shaking his head. He was sombre for a moment before offering a mock salute to no one in particular. "Happy sailings to you, Joon."
"Happy sailings," Arthur and Perceval echoed.
"And all the nubile young virgins and bottles of rum," Gwaine added. Arthur raised a brow; Lance and Perceval did, too. Gwaine, no doubt sensing himself under scrutiny, stopped checking his guns and shot them all a dirty look. "What? I mean, it's not like any of us liked him much, but that doesn't mean I can't wish him well."
"That's still more than he'd have given you," Arthur said, checking his chronometer. He synchronized a countdown to the estimated time of arrival at the appropriate coordinates. It wouldn't be long before they were just outside easy communication range with Course IV -- not that they would respond to any maydays considering the lockdown, and Arthur had to admit that the explosion worked in their favour -- and in a proverbial blind spot where an Imperial patrol wouldn't arrive in time.
"Aw, he loved me, he just didn't want to admit it," Gwaine said, gearing up. "We good to go?"
"Don't forget your jacket," Arthur said, and put his on, too. Arthur hit the comms. "Get ready, gentlemen. We're starting the show in three... two..."
"You have the PA system," Lance said over the comms. "Channel two."
Arthur flashed a glance in Gwaine's direction. Gwaine was grinning. Perceval took up the rear, his game face on. No one could miss them strolling down the galleys, but just in case, Arthur meant to make sure that they had everyone's attention.
The Pirates didn't wear a set uniform. Every man took care of their own clothing, their armour, their weapons. But his men were Clan Pendragon -- even Gwaine, Perceval, and Lance, among others on board the Excalibur who were honorary members -- and the Pendragons were royalty among Pirates. Their outfits were a style above the rest, their armour a notch better, their weapons cutting edge. They were the roughest, the most ruthless, and their reputation and renown was worth more than silver Sterling in any Pirate port.
There was no arguing for fashion when function was a necessity. Their armour was a triple layer of nanomesh impervious to sharp knives and most small weapons fire, a secondary light flex-plating moulded to the body and separated at the joints for ease of movement, and heavier protective shielding that would unfold in response to muscle twitch movement during close combat. Their boots were armoured and knee-high and had hidden weapons compartment and magnets for whenever they needed to work under zero-G. The armour could hold up under open space conditions when it was properly sealed; all they needed were gloves and helms. That was where the similarities between their gear ended.
Gwaine's armour was painted in random splashes of emerald greens and pale olives and glittering silvers, layered with modified spidersilk webbing for all the knives he carried and the multiple fold-out swords he preferred. He kept his guns in hip holsters and thigh straps, wore a black Jolly Rogers bandana over his hair, and covered it all with a long pseudo-leather coat that fell to his knees. His only allowance for the Pendragon clan was the silver dragon stamped on his shoulder.
It was an emblem that was repeated on Perceval. The silver dragon on his chest was right over his heart, and stood out against armour that was painted a matte black that still showed hints of the lavender-and-purple dye from last month's prank. He didn't bother with a jacket because it was hard to find one that would fit over his broad shoulders and over top of his more elaborate arm plates without tearing. Perceval liked to save those he had for special occasions. He carried the heavier weapons, the biggest guns, and rarely carried spares, because brave was the man or woman who tried to disarm him in the first place.
A pity about Lance. As far as Arthur was concerned, Lance's gear was just as eye-catching with blacks and blazes of dull orange, but he was taking care of the ship's system by remote, and he preferred to work in peace and quiet. It was a shame. That meant that Arthur was going to have the spotlight all to himself.
Mostly. He couldn't trust Gwaine not to shove him out of the way.
There was never any missing Arthur, not even in a crowd, and that was the way he liked it. His armour had a glossy black finish, was highlighted with pale yellows and muted reds, and unlike everyone else, the dragon on his chest was a bold, brilliant gold.
He was pirate royalty. He was the heir to the Pendragon Clan. He would damn well wear his emblem where everyone could see it..
Arthur went light on the netting. He didn't carry many weapons. Two guns -- one on his hip, the other on his thigh. Several knives, most of which were hidden in various compartments on his body. His most ostentatious weapon was his sword -- a long, slightly curved blade metalworked with ancient folding techniques, with a little bit of modern technology thrown in for good measure. He covered most of it up with a fitted black two-tailed waistcoat trimmed in a rich blood red, gold stitching, and polished buttons -- the King's tailor had insisted.
A quick glance at his watch, a confirming nod at Gwaine and Perceval, and Arthur stepped out into the main atrium where most of the guests were socializing or lounging around the small pool and open bar.
He raised his gun and released a short burst pre-programmed to detonate twenty feet in the air, a few shy of the ceiling. Men and women alike startled. Some of them screamed. A few moved out of the way. Most of them stared, unsure and disbelieving.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" Arthur tapped his ear to access the PA system for a ship-wide announcement and repeated, "Ladies and gentlemen! Don't be alarmed. Please remain calm. If you do what we say, no one will be hurt."
A few titters rippled through the crowd. Some people even clapped their hands politely. It never failed to amaze Arthur how the rich thought that status and money could protect them against the unexpected. He wondered how many of them would sue the luxury liner for the extreme and undue trauma of having permitted the ship to be attacked in the first place.
"If you're sitting down, don't get up. If you're standing, sit down. Have your valuables out before my men reach you, and by valuables, I mean your jewellery, your untraceable cred-cards -- we take each and every dominion -- and the silver Sterling you claim you don't have, but that your greedy little hearts can't bear to part with, not even for a few hours so that you can enjoy a drink next to a skimpily-dressed pinnacle of the human form."
No one was laughing now. They were exchanging glances, suddenly unsure. It was probably sinking in by now that the Pirates weren't part of the ship's entertainment.
Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw one of his men take down one of the security guards who had come to that realization before anyone else.
"My men have complete control of the ship. You won't be sending out a Mayday nor leaving behind a residual signal for anyone to track. You won't be running for the lifepods and making a beeline for the nearest planet with a sexy young thing to keep you busy while you wait to be rescued. You won't be a hero, because, ladies and gentlemen, we are Pirates."
It was funny how some of them still thought that this was all an act. Leon had warned Arthur that he needed to tone down the flourish. Geraint was of the opinion that Arthur should sport an eye patch and maybe have a parrot on his shoulder. Elyan once snickered and suggested that Arthur get a peg leg and a hook hand. As far as Arthur was concerned, keeping the captive audience guessing was the best way of keeping them under control.
Two of Arthur's men walked through the crowd, a bag held out in front of them. Every now and then, they would shake the bag and snarl threateningly to make things move faster. Arthur saw one of his crewmen grab one of the resisting men by the lapels of his gaudy tropical shirt, haul him to his feet, and snarl in his face. The man, properly cowed, emptied his pockets in a hurry. The rest of the collection went by smoothly.
"For those of you who didn't make it to the atrium in time for Happy Hour, please be patient. I realize you want to join in on the fun, but when I said we have complete control of the ship, I meant, we have complete control of the ship. Your doors are locked and will only be released temporarily when we drop in for a visit."
Arthur glanced at Perceval, who nodded. He was keeping track of everyone's progress. Gwaine was in communication with the team assaulting the bridge; he checked his wrist terminal, calling up a miniature display, and made a slight gesture that Arthur took to mean that there had been trouble, but everything was fine now.
Arthur had in excess of twenty men on board for this job. Normally, he wouldn't expend the resources. They could make do with a five-man team on a ship this size. All Arthur would need was Perceval to handle the crowds, because his size alone was intimidating; Gwaine to run the logistics and locate whatever they were meant to claim; Lance or Elyan subjugating the ship's systems; and a lackey to do all the heavy lifting. Arthur always took over the bridge.
Not this time, though. They had lost six of the eight Healers that they had managed to rescue over the last few months -- the CorpsCops had gotten there first. Of the two that they had liberated, one of them had misrepresented her classification, and the other one simply wasn't strong enough.
Arthur needed a Healer. This Healer. He couldn't afford to waste more time looking for someone else. Healers were a rare breed, but Healers trained under the old Imperial regime were the rarest of all. They would never find a more skilled Healer than Gaius Wiltshire, and Arthur could only hope he was up to the task. Uther Pendragon's health worsened every day and the vultures were circling, waiting for the King to die.
The Empire's troops were ever breathing down Pirate necks and Conglomerate ships were breaching the borders into the uncharted zone, inching into Pirate territory. Now was not the time for the Clans to turn their resources inward over some sort of petty war and leadership grab. The King's seat wasn't hereditary. It was an elected position, and with as many power hungry Clans as there were trying for the throne, there would be war.
If Arthur pulled out all the stops to make certain that the Empire didn't catch them with their pants down... So be it.
Leon's voice chimed over the comms. "We're alongside. Docking now, Captain."
"Acknowledged," Arthur said. To the team onboard the liner, he said, "Secure your locations. Make your way across."
Across the atrium, the other pirates nodded in his direction and left through the side entrances; the doors slid shut behind them, and Arthur knew that they wouldn't open again until the Excalibur was well away. It would take hours to restore communications, and in the end, they would have a day's head start -- unless they were unlucky and a CorpsCops cruiser stumbled over the drifting luxury liner before then.
"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for your indulgence. It's been wonderful, but I'm afraid we have more pressing engagements," Arthur said, and he disconnected from the ship's public announcement system. He turned and headed for the nearest exit, flanked by Perceval and Gwaine. He gave them a quick glance and said, "Let's get our package."
"What about the other one?" Perceval asked. "What was his name again? Niall?"
"You think that's the bloke's real name?" Gwaine scoffed.
"We'll leave him," Arthur said. As curious as he was, the man's identity and purpose wasn't his priority. A part of him knew that he should do something to the man who was, possibly, involved in Joon's death -- blood did call for blood, and feuds were common among Pirates -- but Joon didn't have any family and was barely associated with the Pendragon Clan. There would be a memorial, a toast in his name, a recounting of his foibles, a raised fist and a Pirate curse for his killer, whoever it was, and that would be that.
They marched down the corridor and stopped outside Gaius' room. Arthur stood in front of the door, keeping clear in case something or someone should jump out at him; Gwaine and Perceval stood on either side. Gwaine waited for his go-ahead, and Arthur nodded.
Gwaine tapped the controls. The door slid open.
A small squeak -- a suppressed shriek of surprise -- greeted them. Gaius, his hat and coat abandoned, stood a few feet away, looking at them with an open mouth and a healthy measure of fear.
There was no sign of the other man, but Arthur wasn't sticking his head through the doorway to see for himself. Perceval made a faint gesture with his hand. The man was off to Arthur's left, out of sight.
"Gaius," Arthur said pleasantly, inclining his head in a slight bow. "If you'll come with me, we'll take you on to the next leg of your journey."
Gaius glanced to the side. "I am not certain --"
"This would be much easier if Joon was with you," Arthur said with a quiet sigh. "He knew the plan. I gather he didn't have any time to share it before he died."
"You know about that?" Gaius asked, and in nearly the same breath, said, "Of course you know about that. I tried to save him, but it was too late. Perhaps if I had arrived earlier -- Are you coming with me?"
The last wasn't addressed to Arthur or his men; Gaius was looking at his companion. Gaius trusted him, whoever it was, and Arthur had a feeling that leaving the second man behind was, possibly, not an option. If the man answered, Arthur didn't know, because he didn't speak and Gaius' earnest expression didn't change except for one raised brow.
"As much as I appreciate your friend's assistance in getting you onboard, he's not one of my men. I'm afraid we can't trust him."
"That's… what he said, too," Gaius said, his tone soft.
"That you can't trust us?"
"That I shouldn't trust him," Gaius said.
Arthur didn't let it show, but he was taken aback. If saving a Pirate's booty was some sort of elaborate plot to plant a CorpsCop agent among the Pirates -- never an easy feat -- telling them that they couldn't trust him seemed counterintuitive. Or a canny psychological trick. Either way --
"He's right. Now, please, Gaius, we're short on time --"
"Very short," Lance said, running down the hallway toward them. "Elyan caught stray radio chatter. There's three cruisers coming this way at speed. They'll be here in less than ten minutes."
"Is that ten minutes before weapons range or ten minutes before we're toast?" Gwaine asked.
"Ten minutes before we're toast," Lance said.
Arthur raised a meaningful eyebrow at Gaius, but Gaius' attention was somewhere to the side, at a spot Arthur couldn't see. Arthur stamped a wave of irritation and started to protest when Niall spoke.
Thank you, Arthur wanted to say, except Gaius didn't agree. "You saved my life. Let me save yours."
"Technically, we'd be doing the saving," Gwaine said, but no one ever paid him any mind.
"I am not leaving without you," Gaius said, crossing his arms.
Arthur heard a scoff.
"They're after you, Gaius," Niall said. "If they find you on board, you're as good as dead. They don't care about me."
"He has a point," Arthur said. He glanced at Lance, who raised a brow, tapped a foot, and pointed to his wrist before making a circular let's get this act on the road roll of his hand. "However, in the interest of urgency, I'd like to settle the argument by formally inviting your knight in shining armour to our ship, where we'll be happy to drop him off at the nearest station along the way. Something tells me that it's an invitation he can't refuse, not with the CorpsCops bearing down and two fake IDs in the system, one of which belongs to him."
Five seconds passed. Ten. Arthur was generous, he would let the man have twenty seconds to make a decision before he made the decision for them. Sixteen seconds passed before there was a heavy huff of breath, a rustle of fabric, and the sudden emergence of a man in a heavy dark, dirty coat, his head and face hooded by a cowl. He walked to Gaius, took his arm, and hauled him out of the room and up the corridor, gracefully avoiding crashing into any of them.
Arthur muttered under his breath. He should be leading the way, not this idiot.
"Which way?" the man -- Niall -- asked.
"Fore-bottom," Gwaine supplied. "Cargo bay."
The man let go of Gaius and gestured for him to walk behind, the Pirates taking the sides and rear in protective diamond formation. Gwaine and Arthur exchanged glances full of disdainful who is this guy, but Arthur let Niall have his way for now. Arthur wouldn't trust this man at his back and wanted him where he could see him.
Niall was Arthur's height, maybe a little taller; narrower in the shoulders and beanpole slim under the broad jacket he wore. The hood didn't seem attached to the jacket itself, and it was a diaphanous, completely opaque fabric; loose and rigid at the same time, as if taking the shape that he intended it to take from some sort of programmed memory. Arthur had clothes like that, though it took a tailor's electrical pin to force the fabric to hold a particular drape.
The man wore gloves. His black trousers were made up out of the same sort of fabric as the hood, though they were loose, comfortable, no different than the dungarees most of Arthur's men wore ship-side. He wore boots that came to just under the knee, but so snug and light that they might as well have been a pair of socks or stockings. It took a while before Arthur realized that his boots weren't worn with use, and that there really was a split between the big toe and the rest of them, though why --
Arthur shook himself out of it. Checking out the bloke's arse wasn't on his agenda right now.
Niall certainly knew his way around -- better, at least, than the rest of them. He led the way aft, to the front of the ship, descending levels rather than taking lifts -- which were notorious for taking the circuitous route, particularly on luxury liners, and they were in a little bit of a rush right now, what with the approaching doom --
The man slowed and stopped. Gwaine moved ahead, bumping shoulders with him. "It's ahead, first left --"
A hand raised to shush Gwaine. A finger pointed, but at what, Arthur didn't know -- and then he did. He saw the faintest shadow on the ground fifty feet ahead, in an already darkened corridor, the object half-hidden by the curvature of the far wall. As far as Arthur could tell, it was a bloody potted plant.
Except potted plants didn't move, and none of them had seen it until Gaius' friend pointed it out.
Who was this guy?
"Did your ship scan for Needlers?" The question was so soft that Arthur barely processed the words. Needlers sank in, finally, and a chill ran down his spine.
The Empire's military had several levels of troops -- at the lowest level, dealing with common crimes, were the CorpsCops, and it went from there into multiple categories, all of whom fell under the slang blanket of Imperial Blues. They were nuisances as far as the Pirates were concerned; if they were ever cornered by the Blues, it was considered to be entertainment.
For the Pirates, not the Blues.
Needlers, on the other hand, were the White Legion, the personal guards of the Regent Council made up of voting members of the Conglomerate of Corporations. The Legion was made up of highly-trained men and women who didn't know the meaning of fear, self-preservation, or survival. They weren't cherry-picked from the regular army; they weren't volunteers. They were bred for the single and sole task of following orders to the letter, genetically modified to strip away weakness and to push human limits until they weren't limits anymore, but suggestions. There were those who wondered if the soldiers of the White Legion were human at all.
"Leon," Arthur said, letting his voice drop low, "Did you scan for Needlers?"
"Why should I? We're ages past the Central Core. No one's seen any in this district -- and you've got three minutes to get on board," Leon answered.
"Just do it," Arthur said. He sounded calmer than he was.
The White Legion took their nickname from the vehicles used for stealth approaches in enemy territory. The Needle ships were long, torpedo-like vehicles made out of a thin foil skin that made the one- or three-man transport nearly undetectable to conventional short-range scanners. Locating them was a trick of chemistry and physics that made Arthur's head hurt, something about measuring the current decay rate of the stealth-skin instead. A Needle's nose was equipped with a drill to breach a ship's hull and to allow entrance, sealing off the damage as they went to keep the alarms from being raised.
Niall advanced slowly. He reached up with both hands and moved something over his face; the hood he wore shrunk slightly, tightening at the neck and following the curve of his head. The man's trousers tightened, too, molding to the shape of his legs.
"Shite," Leon whispered. "Scanning two. No, three."
"Is the crew on board?" Arthur asked. He followed Niall slowly and gestured for the others to do the same.
"Waiting on you."
"Nearly there," Arthur said. He shot Gwaine and Perceval significant looks -- get Gaius on the ship, leave me behind if you have to. You know the job. I'll find my own way if I have to.
They reached the doorway that would lead to the airlock. Gwaine led the way, keeping Gaius behind him; Perceval followed after. No sooner had they walked through that the shadow at the end of the corridor shifted, bursting into action.
"Run," Arthur shouted, and he took the rear, only dimly aware of Niall right behind him. Arthur turned around just as he heard the door slide shut, shooting at the security console on the wall.
Except there were two shots, and Arthur hadn't been the only one to have fired. Niall exchanged a glance with him, and Arthur froze.
The man's face was masked, with swaths of black across his nose and mouth and low across his forehead, but those were the bluest eyes that Arthur had ever seen. Nothing like Conglomerate blue or the ostentatious colors on Gwaine's armor or even the ridiculous blue diamonds that so many Pirates coveted. Those eyes were ocean blue, simultaneously clear and crisp like the shallows under bright sunlight and dark and distant like the deep of the sea roiling under a hurricane.
The man broke eye contact first. He grabbed Arthur's arm, swirled him around, and pushed him until he was moving on his own.
"Won't hold them," he said.
"I know that," Arthur snapped. He shot Niall a sidelong look. His men would have heard Leon over the comms, but how would this man have known? "What do you mean, them?"
"Two out there. There's a third somewhere. They're always in threes," he said. His voice was a low whisper, soft and husky under the curt undertone. At any other time, Arthur would love to hear that voice moaning under him, those eyes flashing with pleasure, but at the moment, Arthur was more interested in keeping everyone safe. His libido could wait.
"And you know that because you're one of them?"
The man snorted. "No."
They ran down the corridor, turned a corner, and caught a glimpse of Perceval darting through a doorway on the right at the bottom of the ramp, heading for the airlocks. Behind them, the ship resonated with the low bass hurr-hurru-brr-aaam-mmm of low-yield explosives. The Needlers were through.
They ran faster, thundering down the carpeted ramp.
This particular airlock was a service entrance for staff and supplies, drab and lacking the garish decoration of the passenger-only areas. The walls were off-white gloss, the floor grainy and textured, the open area full of storage containers and providing far too many hiding places than what Arthur was comfortable with. Gwaine was pushing Gaius through the airlock.
"Go! Goddamn it, what's the holdup?"
"Gaius wanted to wait for him," Gwaine said, jerking his head in Niall's direction. "Now, he won't walk the plank."
If there was anything that the Pirates had perfected, it was the art of breaching and boarding another ship. It required quick attachment, access through a secure hatch, and the rapid entry of as many people as they could get before the ship's defences activated. They were even more skilled with the art of disembarking: they could be across and gone in five seconds flat, even if it meant jettisoning the boarding bridge.
But that was the point. Their version of a boarding bridge was a plastic, extendable tube that could latch onto any ship's surface and pressurize with a breathing atmosphere in less than five seconds. It was cheap to make and no skin off any Pirate's nose if it were lost in a hasty getaway, but it was only cheap because they used the lowest-cost materials that they could get away with, and by low-cost, Arthur meant clear, flimsy material without the expected solidifiers to turn the plasticized material opaque.
Pirates got used to free-floating and hauling themselves through the boarding bridge quickly out of sheer survival requirement, and there were plenty of Captains out there who refused to let anyone onboard who were disoriented by the vast expanse of black space and stars. Stepping onto the plank took some getting used to, particularly if someone wasn't wearing a space-ready suit. Arthur wasn't surprised that Gaius was digging in his heels. He wouldn't be the first.
"Perceval," Arthur said, because they'd done this before.
"Begging your pardon," Perceval said, and he threw Gaius over his shoulder. The Healer squawked.
Arthur whirled around at the first sound of weapons-fire, swinging his arm in the air to take a shot. Niall was moving, taking cover, getting out of the line of sight. The Needlers were bearing down on them, walking in one at a time, fanning out.
They were faceless soldiers, the Needlers, hidden behind helmets and featureless faceplates. The Empire didn't skimp on their armour. The Legion didn't wear the equivalent of Pirate-grade three layers of protection -- they wore five, the fifth layer a projected force shield that absorbed weapons fire, taking kinetic and explosive energy and using it to fuel the shields.
"Shite," Arthur hissed. Short of a nuclear blast, he couldn't think of a single way of slowing the Needlers down until Gaius was all the way across to the Excalibur.
"Lance! Go! Gwaine!"
"Not without you, Captain," Gwaine shouted back.
The Needlers stalked closer. Arthur's attention was split in three because the Needlers themselves were moving in tandem, circling the room and dividing their fire and focus. Arthur stepped back, counting as every one of his shots plinked ineffectually on the enemy's personal shields.
A black shape climbed the storage containers with lunging jumps before throwing itself into the air, shooting one Needler, then another, and the third from the rear. The first Needler fell forward before catching his balance; the other was distracted enough to turn around, and --
This time, Arthur's shot went through the shield. That was when he realized that the shields weren't on a complete three-sixty configuration and that the bloody Needlers had weaknesses, thank fuck. "Gwaine!"
"Concentrate your fire!"
Niall was too close to one of the Legion soldiers for Arthur to fire without shooting him by accident, and in any case, the soldier was being kept busy. Arthur fired at the third Needler, focusing on the same spot as Gwaine, the two of them backing up until they were nearly to the airlock. The Needler continued to advance. It was fearsome, large and overbearing, moving forward like a juggernaut. The Needler had a weapon in his hand but he wasn't shooting; Arthur wasn't sure what he was going to do.
The Needler's advance was cut short when the second one crashed into him. The two landed hard on the deck, rolled, and crashed into storage containers that creaked and tumbled on top of them.
And the man -- Gaius' friend, Niall, whatever his name was -- he straightened out of a crouch and eyed their surroundings warily. He crossed the distance to Arthur with several quick steps, flinging his ugly, over-large jacket off into a corner. Arthur stared at him for a long time before waving at Gwaine.
"Go. I'll be right behind you." Arthur hesitated one moment before following after, only to freeze at movement out of the corner of his eye.
The two Needlers shoved the cargo containers out of the way, but the boxes were heavy and awkward, even with the two of them working at it, but that wasn't what had caught Arthur's eye. It was the flash of Imperial white, the heavy under shade of royal lavender --
"Go." This time, it was Niall who spoke, a hard edge in his voice. Arthur reached the edge of the airlock, hooking his fingers, and shoved himself through. The momentum and sudden loss of gravity propelled him through the bridge, and he twisted his body around, shooting down at the newest Needler -- a Legion Elite. Firing his gun gave Arthur just that extra momentum needed to bring him close enough to grab one of the rungs and start climbing to Excalibur.
He was only peripherally aware of fighting below him, of Niall blocking off the Elite's attempts to catch up to them. Arthur reached up -- Perceval took his arm and pulled, but someone grabbed his belt and yanked. He glanced down and saw Niall holding on tight --
Their eyes met.
Arthur saw the knife in the man's hand. The intent in his eyes.
"Oh, shite! Pull!"
The knife cut a half-circle through the flimsy boarding bridge. It was enough. The pressure differential was sucked out in a rush of air that tore a line around the rest of the bridge. The Excalibur ship-wide alarms blared for a few frozen seconds before Arthur gasped for breath, safe through the airlock, patting himself up and down to make sure he was intact.
Gwaine's eyes were wide. Lance's mouth was agape. Perceval was sprawled on the ground, panting for breath as if he were about to have a coronary. They were surrounded by Arthur's men, nearly all of whom had their guns trained on the newcomer.
Niall was flat on his stomach, his chest heaving. He turned slowly, first on his side, then on his back, propping himself up on his elbows, making a strange, wheezing sound.
That was when Arthur realized that he was laughing. It was the laugh of a man who hadn't laughed in a long time, who probably had never laughed in his entire life. Arthur watched as the man reached up and passed his hand over his face to brush the mask away; it faded and fell backward in revelation.
Those irresistible blue eyes. That big bright smile. The shag of curly black hair, the cheekbones, the strong jaw.
The man spread his hands.
"Permission to come aboard?"
Location: Excalibur, Pirate Warship, Uncontrolled Space
Real estate on any space-faring vessel was a precious commodity, and never was that more true than on a Pirate ship where every available square millimetre was filled to brimming with whatever plunder had been purloined from their latest pillage. As much as the Pirate Captain had been initially inclined to toss Merlin out of the airlock's force field and leave him to the tender mercies of the Needlers for destroying the bridge between ships, good sense and Gaius' intervention had convinced Arthur Pendragon to make allowances for the man who had saved his life.
The only free space to stow an unexpected and uninvited guest was, apparently, the brig. Merlin didn't complain. It was private, quiet, and there was a clean cot to sleep on, though he could do without the door being locked on the other side, and the grating sound of the security slit sliding open, invading his privacy.
Merlin bade his time. They were still in free space, but as soon as they docked at a station or landed planet-side, Merlin would be taking his leave, whether or not the Pirates allowed it.
And, in the meantime, he suffered through the pang of regret that he would be leaving at all. Arthur Pendragon was…
Merlin blamed his interest in the Pirate Captain on the long-standing lack of close personal contact in his life. He'd had a few anonymous one-night stands, but it was rare, very rare, that Merlin would give someone a second look.
Arthur, however, was worth a third and a fourth look. One hundred of them, if he could manage it. There were men and women who were far more beautiful, of course, but there was something about the Pirate that drew Merlin in. The cut of his jaw. The broadness of his shoulders. His arse.
Oh, Gods. That arse. Even in armour, Arthur had a body that made Merlin lust.
Merlin struggled to meditate and put the distracting thoughts out of his mind. It wasn't going well.
He sat cross-legged in the far corner of the cell, his back against the wall, the overburden of his clothing and armour carefully folded and set aside, each piece next to the last as if on display at a merchant square. The majority of his weapons were somewhere on the ship, out-of-sight but not out-of-mind, and Merlin would either retrieve them or be forced to do without once he left the Pirate's hospitality -- not an appealing prospect. The remainder of his weapons and tools -- the knives and needles and old-fashioned lock picks hidden in the secret compartments in his armour -- had escaped both Gwaine's thorough pat-down and the electronic warble of Lance's handheld sensor.
Beyond the slide of a food tray through the slot at the bottom of the door, Merlin had had no company over the last six days, but he knew that the Pirates hadn't forgotten about him.
He was being watched. The cameras might be cleverly disguised as part of the brig's fixtures, but Merlin had spotted them the instant he had been pushed in.
Merlin ignored the discomfort that came with knowing that the Pirates were casually and gleefully taking video and three-dee when he'd worked long and hard to keep his appearance from showing on official record. They might not know who he was, but surely they had enough information to cobble together the puzzle pieces and come up with assassin-for-hire. There was no telling what they would do with video like this in their hands.
They were Pirates. They could use it to blackmail Merlin into doing their bidding. They could use it to reveal his identity. They might even be enterprising enough to use it as promotional material for an illegal underground fight and reap the profits when they threw Merlin in the ring. Whatever they were going to do with the video, it came down to nothing good.
Merlin would take care of the ship's data banks before leaving -- he still had a burrow virus on a chip drive hidden in a tiny compartment in his armour -- but in the meantime, he gave them absolutely nothing to look at.
He kept his dragonscale bodyarmour on. He washed with his back to the cameras, sliding a damp towel under his shirt and pants. He brushed his teeth with a finger. He ate his food. He engaged the flimsy excuse for a privacy screen and used the loo. He slept. He meditated.
In effect, Merlin did his best to appear as normal as possible to distance himself from the image the Pirates no doubt had burned into their minds: a man who had gone hand-to-hand against a Triad of the White Legion and lived.
A Triad led by a White Legion Elite soldier wearing the royal lavender of the House of Shadows.
Merlin swallowed the string of curses lingering on the tip of his tongue. He reined in the outrage that would do him no good here, where he couldn't do anything about the White Legion.
It was the greatest story never told, a tale of betrayal and massacre that would never be shared and never uncovered: of shadow-warriors courted by the enemy and lured by Corporation coin, their loyalty to the Imperial bloodline compromised by promises of power and luxury.
These traitorous men and women had split from the royal House of Shadows, forming the first incarnation of the White Legion under the Conglomerate banner. When the Emperor's family was assassinated in an explosion, these very same traitors had planted evidence placing the blame on the House of Shadows.
Judged, dragged to trial, exiled, hunted for the bounties on their heads, the House of Shadows had survived the aftermath, though they were pariahs now. They lived in secrecy, the identities of the handful who remained stricken from the official records while the traitors were free men, rich men, feared men -- the White Legion.
Royal lavender was the colour of the House of Shadows. Or it had been, before the White Legion corrupted it, their Elite wearing it like a badge of honour. But that colour made it easy to pick out those among the White Legion who were trained in the arts of the House of Shadows, be they blood of the traitors or soldiers bred. They were a disgrace, a stain on the honour of the House, and Merlin had sworn that he would one day see the fall of them all, even if he had to kill them one by one.
Merlin had no illusions. Blowing the Legion out of the boarding bridge and leaving him to cold space's tender mercies would not have killed the Elite. The body armour they wore was too robust for that; they could survive for a good ten, possibly fifteen minutes before they ran out of suit oxygen, and those who had received Shadow training could shut down their bodies and place themselves in a trance state that would extend their chances by a handful of minutes more. Merlin could have stayed and fought and have been certain of his kill, but the situation hadn't been ideal. If he had stayed behind, he would have had to deal with a White Triad -- hardly a challenge even at his worst -- but he would also have been stranded when there no doubt was a nearby CorpsCops ship, and he couldn't fight them all.
Merlin couldn't help but grimace inwardly at how complicated things had gotten, and quickly. No doubt someone had specifically hired him to ensure that the Healer was killed, and in the process, had even taken measures to guarantee that Merlin was also eliminated. The undercover CorpsCops on Course IV should not have made it to the Red Light district so quickly, and the White Legion should not have been so handily available to board the exact ship that the Healer was using to escape.
Something more was going on.
Normally, Merlin wouldn't give a flying fuck. He would cut his losses, move on, disappear. But in this particularly elaborate set of circumstances, someone had tried to kill him. Merlin took that somewhat personally. Like it or not, he was involved.
The door to his cell slid open in a faint mechanical whir. Merlin didn't open his eyes.
He could hear the faint hum of ship-wide noise, the rustle of clothing, a shuffle of movement, slow and steady breathing.
Whoever was at the door had come alone. The guards assigned to watch the brig were gone, which was unusual. For all their apparent lack of discipline and disregard for social niceties, the Pirates on board this ship obeyed their orders to the letter, and they would only have left if someone had dismissed them. There were few enough who appeared to have both the authority and the respect to do just that -- Leon, a tall, bearded redhead with wavy hair; Perceval, the big bloke who looked as if he could have taken on a White Legion bare-handed and possibly have survived; Gwaine, who had put the swash in swashbuckler, complete with self-deprecating humour. None of them had any reason to come visit Merlin, which meant --
"Have I mentioned how comfortable your accommodations are, Captain?"
A small huff answered him. Another rustle of clothing. The light footfalls of someone who was equally at ease in the lower gravity of a ship and the heavier gravity of his homeworld.
There was a slight shift in the warmth of the air in front of Merlin, enough to tell him that Arthur was crouching down, just out of arm's reach.
Merlin inhaled the spicy musk that was Arthur's natural scent, barely muffled by his cologne, and suppressed a shudder of want.
"It occurs to me that the Needlers were rather quick to arrive," Arthur said, his tone flat, stony, just this side shy of accusation.
"Finally," Merlin said, blinking out of his half-meditation. "It took you long enough to come to that conclusion, and you had help. How much did Gaius tell you?"
The first thing he focused on were Arthur's eyes; blue like jewels, glittering and vibrant even in the gaudy fluorescence of the overhead lights. His mouth was set in a firm line, his was jaw clenched, and a light blonde fringe fell down his brow and neatly hid whatever emotion that was in Arthur's gaze. Merlin could deduce the irritation well enough from the tightness in Arthur's shoulders.
"There's only so much that he knows," Arthur allowed, a biting edge to his tone, the word selection slow and careful. "If needs must, we would be more than happy to fill in the blanks, but you should know that Pirates are prone to wild speculation and gossip. If I don't hear otherwise, and quickly, I won't be inclined to protect you from a ship full of angry men convinced that it was all a trap, and that you're a clever git who's in on an elaborate plot meant to infiltrate the Pendragon Clan and make a second attempt to kill the King."
It took Merlin a moment to parse what Arthur said. While Merlin respected the healthy level of paranoia that was prevalent among the Pirates, Merlin was thrown by the accusation that he was part of it. Him? Allied with the Imperial Conglomerate? Working in tandem with the White Legion? That was laughable. Scoffable. Ridiculous.
But even that took second stage to the revelation of an assassination attempt on the Pirate King. It seemed that Merlin had been going through life with blinders on. First, the Healers were disappearing. Second, the CorpsCops were far too interested in the Pirates. Third, the man who had the collective sum of Clan ships at his command and could conceivably lead and win a war against the Imperial Conglomerate was a target of an assassination attempt significant enough that it could be mentioned as the first. The first of many.
Which meant --
Healers were disappearing. The Imperial Conglomerate was rounding up skilled and talented Healers for a reason. And that reason had to be that the first assassination attempt had been, at the very least, partially successful, or the Pirates wouldn't be risking their necks to get a Healer out of Imperial space.
Merlin could believe that this was a complicated, three-pronged plan. It would take something of a genius to arrange for a Healer to come to the Pirates' attention, wait for them to take the bait, take a precautionary step to kill the Healer's contact and to insert a new person who was meant to gain the Pirates' trust. Stage the obligatory fight to cement the new person's worth to the Pirates, and take the opportunity, should one arise, to finish off the Pirate King.
It was a plot elaborate enough to make the current Master of the hidden, exiled House of Shadows clap his hands in glee. Hell, it was a plot elaborate enough that it had probably come from Master Kilgharrah himself.
The thought made him pause. While Kilgharrah had the bad habit of meddling in matters that he shouldn't be meddling with, why would Kilgharrah involve Merlin without warning him? He knew what Merlin was like -- intractable, single-minded, stubborn and unpredictable. It was a gamble that Merlin wouldn't follow through to kill Gaius. That he would realize that he'd been set up. That he would help Gaius get to the Lady Hiamela. That he would escort the Pirates and Gaius to their ship and ensure they made it past the White Legion alive. That he wouldn't stay behind to exact revenge on the traitor, that he would make his way onboard the ship.
No. Kilgharrah never manipulated a situation unless it was a sure thing. This couldn't be some of Kilgharrah's mischief. It had all the hallmarks, but --
Ugh. Merlin's head throbbed. He would be better off going to the secret shadowplanet where the House was surviving in exile and confronting Kilgharrah to obtain some sort of surety of the Master's involvement than trying to sort it out for himself.
"Do you feel inclined to protect me now?" Merlin asked, deciding to focus on that.
"You're pretty," Arthur said. He smirked.
"Oh," Merlin said, at a loss for something intelligent to say. "Well."
"You're blushing." Arthur's lips pulled into a smile that softened the mocking tone. His eyes trailed over Merlin's body with the expression of a hungry man who was trying to decide what he wanted to do first. "How far does that blush go?"
Merlin licked his lips, flustered. Arthur's gaze snapped up to his mouth. This wasn't right. Merlin was an assassin. He was the most sought-after assassin in the known universe. He smoothly manoeuvred through hostilities that would rattle even the most seasoned Imperial veteran. He killed men and women renowned for their fearsome skills without batting an eyelash. He lived his life knowing that if he were ever captured and identified as a descendant of the House of Shadows, he would be executed without adjudication. Merlin should not be put off-balance because someone was flirting with him.
Merlin's eyes narrowed. No one ever flirted with him. That he rarely showed his face and never socialized with others was completely beside the point. If Arthur Pendragon, Captain of the Excalibur and son of the Pirate King, was flirting with him, it was because he wanted something. He'd said as much when he walked into the cell, wanting answers.
Merlin regained control of his body, forced himself to stop blushing, and regarded Arthur coolly. "The White Legion were quick to arrive because it was a set up."
Arthur's leering expression shifted into disappointment before his demeanour settled into professional detachment. "Really? We hadn't suspected that at all. Do go on. Tell me more."
"The contract for Gaius Wiltshire included a stipulation that it be written off as a suicide. That takes time to do. When you have to incorporate the location elements into the design, and the location includes a body with a fifteen-centimetre pulse weapon hole through his chest, that complicates things somewhat."
Arthur tilted his head. He nodded curtly. He rolled his hand, inviting Merlin to continue.
"I received explicit instructions. The day, the address, the room number. The hour and the minute. The weapon to use." Merlin paused when he saw Arthur's faint frown. He guessed that Arthur had inventoried Merlin's weapons and had noticed the Walter PK-90cs. Perhaps he had even wondered why Merlin had one, given its' shite performance and propensity for randomly blowing up. Merlin imagined that whoever passed for an Arms Master on board this ship might even have opened it up and realized that the defect had been repaired. "They supplied the weapon."
"Is that normal?" Arthur asked.
"It's not part of the usual services that I provide, but it's not unusual," Merlin said.
"Why would they --"
"Sentimental reasons," Merlin said easily, because he'd wondered it himself. Why would this particular client give him this particular weapon? "A few clients revel in the irony of a drug overdose for someone who is campaigning for a political position that is firmly anti-drugs, for example. Others like to think they have a flair for the dramatic. Some want to get their money's worth. This one…"
Merlin trailed off and shrugged. Arthur's eyes narrowed, and Merlin sighed inwardly. Did he really have to lead the man by the nose to the right answer?
"Consider this. The Walter PK-90cs is capable of a wide-beam plasma pulse similar to the killing wound on the torso of Gaius' contact. It doesn't have the power source to burn a hole clean through the body, and the defects in its design cannot modulate a clean cauterization. Why give me an unstable device that can't be used as a murder weapon? Why insist that it's used to set up a suicide when it's not easy to obtain? Why plan the contract down to the slightest detail, but skimp on their gun selection?"
"Unless they didn't skimp," Arthur said.
Merlin raised a hand, palm up. You said it, not me.
"You knew it was unstable," Arthur said.
"Did I?" Merlin asked, playing the innocent. "How could I? When they pulled the Walter PK off the market, they took great pains to wash the Net of any mention of a defect. Finding the schematics to correct it in a duplicate gun would have been impossible."
Arthur wasn't buying it, because his frown deepened. His mouth pursed. Slow understanding dawned, and he said quietly, "Gaius wasn't the target. You were."
"Yes -- no. What?" That wasn't the conclusion that Merlin thought that Arthur would come up with. It wasn't even a conclusion that Merlin had come up with. The circumstances had every earmark of having been a frame, a set-up to get rid of loose ends. But targeting Merlin, specifically? His mouth fell closed with a click. His brows pinched.
"The CorpsCops were on the scene almost immediately," Arthur said. "Before you triggered the explosion."
"Well. Yes," Merlin said slowly. He'd expected that the CorpsCops had been tipped off so that they could catch Merlin in the act. That had been obvious, but it didn't seem so clear-cut now.
"They identified the ship that you were on and waited for it to get out of Course IV range to limit your escape options," Arthur said.
He had a point. The lifeboats on the Lady Hiamela were shite, nothing more than floating life support systems and nothing by way of propulsion. The three shuttles in their loading bay were designed for short port hops to collect supplies and were good for only an hour trip, one way, at a quarter near-light speed.
"The Imperial cruisers didn't show up until my ship docked for the pickup," Arthur said. "We fucked up their timeline. There was no way the Blues would get on board in time, so they sent the Needlers."
Merlin was at a loss for words. The timing fit. He didn't have sensor records on hand to be absolutely certain, but he imagined that Arthur had gone over the logs himself.
"Gaius' death was a foregone conclusion," Arthur said. "The CorpsCops present in a sector that's rarely on their radar, waiting for us? Opportunistic. But your involvement?"
Arthur's eyes drifted up and down Merlin's body again, this time measuring, calculating.
"You received specific instructions. Something tells me that you don't need to be told what to do, where to be, when. So why did they bother? They could've gotten any random thug to take care of Gaius, but they didn't. The Blues could've swept down on us at any time we were within their sensor range and chase off my ship before it reached the Hiamela, but they didn't. It's you that they're after. You."
Merlin stared at Arthur for a long time. Arthur stared back.
"Who are you?" Arthur asked.
Merlin's brows furrowed.
The House of Shadows hadn't simply been exiled from the Imperial Court for their perceived involvement -- or more accurately, their definite failure -- to protect the Emperor and his family. They were ostracized by their former peers. The House's sigil was struck from the Book of Blood. It was made a crime to speak of them at Court, the offence punishable with imprisonment. Once the Conglomerate took over the rule of the Empire, stabilized the faltering government, and gave military power to a newly-formed White Legion, an edict was spread through the galaxy. All those of the House of Shadows were to be killed on sight.
The survivors of the split had escaped with their lives. They had relocated the remains of the House to an abandoned planet and ensured that every trace of their flight had been eliminated. They went to great pains to permanently erase the already-spotty records of every last member of the House of Shadows.
The Shadows had truly become Shadows.
"You don't exist," Arthur said, his tone calm. "The name and identifying code that you used to board the Hiamela belongs to an eighty-seven year-old man who runs a small landscaping company on New Terra in the Core galaxy. Of the seven other passcards that we found on you, three men are retired Imperial soldiers, two are businessmen, one is a minor Vid celebrity, and the last... As far as we've been able to tell -- and it wasn't easy -- died in childbirth. So, who are you?"
Merlin didn't answer right away.
He was Merlin, son of Balinor. He was the Hand of the Glóm. A Master of the Ten Thousand Knives. A Knight of the Shade. He was the last of the Shadowlords and Heir to the exiled House of Shadows. He was the Scourge of the White Legion.
He was Emrys.
Merlin exhaled slowly. He met Arthur's eyes steadily, put on a small, secret smile. "I'm nobody."
Merlin spread his hands in a helpless gesture. "What did you expect?"
"Something more," Arthur said.
"Sorry to disappoint," Merlin said. "It's a nice thought, but you're wrong. They're not after me and I don't work for them. I'll be happy to get out of your hair as soon as possible."
Arthur shot him a look that Merlin couldn't interpret and shook his head. Arthur stood up abruptly, paced the length of the cell -- three steps took him to the open door, three steps brought him back. He picked up a piece of Merlin's armour, tapped it with his fingernail, inspected it with the cursory curiosity of someone who already knew what he held in his hands.
"What's this, then?"
Merlin craned his head to see better, even though he knew exactly what it was. "Arm bracer."
"Arm bracer," Arthur repeated. He dropped it and selected another part. "And this?"
"And this?" Arthur asked, pointing at a third piece.
Arthur rubbed a frustrated hand through his hair, making it stick up a little. Merlin resisted the urge to reach out and smooth it down. "You have fully disarticulated armour that holds together using shield harmonic technology that no one in the fucking universe has. You have knives with sharper edges than the tightest configurable pulse beam or the best medical laser scalpel. Your projectile weapons have no target tracking, are keyed only to you, and are so heavily modified that even my Weaponmasters don't have a fucking clue what they do. There's absolutely no trace of you on the Net, no matter how much we burrow back. And you're telling me that some… nobody has access to this technology? Some nobody has the resources to make himself disappear?"
Merlin tilted his head, rolled his eyes, and shrugged. "I'm a contract killer. I get paid well for what I do. I have to use the credits, somehow."
"Bollocks," Arthur snapped.
Merlin smirked, enjoying Arthur's frustration. The armour technology wasn't new; it was simply forgotten. Even the White Legion didn't know how to make and manufacture it. The weapons had been forged from ancient secrets, and the House of Shadows had an armoury with sufficient weapons to equip an army. And, since Merlin had been born mere weeks before the House was exiled and relocated, his birth had never been added to the Empire's records, nor compiled in the Book of Blood. It had apparently been a simple task to track down his mother's medical records and revert them, eliminating the even the faintest hint of her pregnancy.
He could tell Arthur all these things. He was surprised that he wanted to. But years of precautions and warnings and training held firm, and he said instead, "Everything and anything is available for those who have the money to pay for it."
The sheer intensity of Arthur's gaze was nearly enough to make Merlin break eye contact. He didn't, but it was a near thing.
Arthur's mouth quirked. It was almost a smile. Amusement coloured his voice and made his features relax, but it didn't reach his eyes. "Or for those who can steal it."
Merlin swept his hand graciously in Arthur's direction. "Or that."
Arthur snorted. He turned away. Merlin couldn't see his face, but he could read the tension in Arthur's shoulders, in the stiffness of his spine. Merlin stayed as he was, admiring the man's arse, forgetting for an instant that it took a brave, trusting, or exceedingly stupid man to turn his back on an assassin. Arthur was either putting a great deal of faith in Merlin not daring to do anything that might impact on surviving this journey, or he truly wasn't concerned about Merlin's abilities.
Merlin rolled his eyes. It wouldn't be the first time that someone misjudged him.
Arthur broke the silence with a quiet, "And the Needler?"
Merlin pretended not to hear. "Hm?"
"How to you explain the Needler?"
"How does anyone explain the White Legion?" Merlin asked. Arthur glowered, and Merlin snorted. "You might do well to ask a precise question, Captain."
"You fought off three Needlers," Arthur said, turning around slowly. There were several feet between them, too close a distance for Merlin to see Arthur without craning his head back.
"Three, actually, but we won't quibble semantics. Also, you and your lot took care of distracting them for me. Thanks for that, incidentally," Merlin said.
"Three Needlers," Arthur repeated, and with more emphasis, added, "And an Elite."
"Hm," Merlin said, forcing a smile to his lips to hide the grit of his teeth. Not many knew the distinction between a man bred into the White Legion and those who were descended from the traitors, but it seemed that Arthur was more educated than most. "If it were a former Shadow, surely they would be old and decrepit by now? It has been thirty years."
"Someone who's mastered the old arts, then," Arthur amended.
Merlin nodded stiffly. "Okay. And?"
Arthur moved, quick, smooth, sure, and crouched in front of Merlin again, so close that the rough leather of ship-side boots scraped on Merlin's crossed legs and Arthur's body heat radiated in the space between them. And, better yet, the shadow he cast blocked the perpetual fluorescent lighting of the cell, giving Merlin some respite from the perpetually bright light. He relaxed into the shadow.
"Legend has it that the Shadowlords couldn't be beaten," Arthur said.
"Legends are stories exaggerating the truth, turning mere men into Gods," Merlin said, ignoring the easy way that Arthur used the title. "Behind their fancy armour, the White Legion are still only men. They can be beaten. They can be killed."
Whatever Arthur had been about to say died on his lips. His expression softened before becoming calculating. "You have a grudge against them," he said instead.
"Who doesn't, indeed," Arthur said. A small smirk tugged at his mouth, but it was sad and lonely. He shifted, almost as if he were about to stand, but he reached out to touch Merlin's face.
Arthur's thumb stroked along his jaw, scraping at the stubble that had grown over the last few days. His fingers followed the line of his cheekbones and lingered close to his ear. "You really are pretty," he murmured.
Merlin flushed. He didn't know how to respond. He forced his expression to remain impassive, his body relaxed. He didn't turn away until the second time that Arthur's thumb ran over his lips, and even then, it was only the slightest pull of his head. It was enough. Arthur dropped his hand.
"You know what they say about Pirates?" Arthur asked.
"That they're socially inept, morally bankrupt, lecherous, greedy drunkards who wash once in a blue moon, fight over nothing, and fuck anything and everything that happens to be near?" Merlin asked.
A corner of Arthur's mouth ticked up. "No. The other thing. The part where a Pirate always keeps their spoils."
"That does come up in frequent conversation. Some days, it's all I can do to get a pint at the local hole and lament the sad state of affairs that makes up the finer points of Pirate society," Merlin said, frowning faintly, not entirely certain what Arthur was getting at.
Arthur's laugh was both sudden and unreserved. He threw his head back, exposing the line of his neck, the laces at his collar falling open to hint at fleshy muscle. Merlin averted his eyes rather than to be caught staring; he thought he saw movement outside the door, lurking in the darkness, listening in.
"Shall I explain the subtle intricacies of our culture? I'll make it simple. It's the Law of Provenance. I brought you aboard," Arthur said, his expression suddenly serious. "Therefore, you belong to me."
Merlin snorted. "Bollocks. You didn't do shite."
Arthur spread his hands. "You were on my person when we were pulled onto the Excalibur. It's a minor, but rather important detail. Also, you'll recall that I didn't give you permission to board my ship. It was unnecessary. You're mine, and that's never going to change."
Merlin stared. When Arthur stood up and moved away from him, Merlin stared some more. He couldn't help how his eyes followed Arthur's backside, the strong line of his legs, the snug fit of those well-worn boots around thick calves. It took him a moment to shake his head and mutter, "What just happened here --"
A flash down the corridor on the other side of the open door caught his attention. Merlin surged to his feet and yanked Arthur hard, pushing him against the far wall of the cell.
"Oi! What are you --"
Something clinked on the wall opposite the open door where Merlin and Arthur had been only a moment ago. It rattled and spun on the cold metal floor.
It was a knife.
One of Merlin's knives. Poorly thrown -- because, otherwise, it would have embedded itself into the wall, it was that sharp for a reason -- and that infuriated him.
Merlin grabbed the thigh section of armour laid out on the floor and pushed Arthur behind him. He pretended not to notice how Arthur's hands settled on Merlin's hips and opened a hidden compartment along the edge. A thin, flexshaft wire that was half the thickness of his little finger and twice as tall as he was whooshed free, the textured section wrapping around his hand.
The length of it was half-ribbon, half-razor's edge. It swirled and shifted in the air, responding to the faintest movement.
Arthur tried to shove Merlin aside; Merlin dug in his heels and pushed Arthur against the wall, keeping him there.
Arthur's fingers tightened on Merlin's hips, hard enough to bruise. Merlin elbowed Arthur to make him stop and stared at the doorway, tilting his head, listening. He stretched his focus, reaching, reaching; the shadows in the corridor reacted to his presence, feeding him sensations.
Two men. One taller than the other. One heavier. They weren't the same men who regularly traded guard shifts outside the brig, but they were neither advancing nor retreating.
"Tell me something." Arthur's breath tickled the back of Merlin's neck, his arm snaking around Merlin's waist, holding him firmly. Merlin didn't stop watching the open doorway or feeling for movement, but he was also acutely aware of how his body fit against Arthur's, his back against a firm chest, his arse against Arthur's groin. "Why is a contract killer's first instinct to protect the person he belongs to?"
Merlin didn't answer right away. He didn't even acknowledge that Arthur had spoken, but the tone in his voice caused the hackles on the back of Merlin's neck to rise. He turned his head just enough to look at Arthur over his shoulder. "What?"
There was a glint in Arthur's eye, a smirk of amusement, a possessive pull keeping Merlin against Arthur. There was no concern in his expression, only canny trickery, and Merlin suddenly knew.
There was no threat. The ship hadn't been boarded by intruders, they weren't being attacked, there were no traitors on board. Arthur had staged this.
Merlin didn't understand why.
He twisted in Arthur's grasp, facing him; it took a complicated push-pull to yank Arthur away from the wall. Arthur blocked a strike intended to knock him out; Merlin slipped out of Arthur's hold and beneath a swinging arm, twisting the razor-whip around Arthur's throat.
Arthur stilled in front of Merlin.
They fit well like this, too, Merlin noticed, holding Arthur lightly against him. Back to chest, arse to groin -- and this close, with unrestricted access to the Pirate's throat, Merlin could smell distinct scents -- sandalwood, gunmetal oil, an unidentifiable musk that couldn't be anything but Arthur.
Arthur shifted; the razor-whip tightened.
"Tell me something," Merlin said, glancing to the cell entrance where he could sense the shadows shifting, people approaching. "Why would anyone try to lay claim to an assassin?"
"When the assassin isn't an assassin," Arthur answered easily. He was fearless, confident, secure; Merlin fought against his rising confusion. This wasn't how Arthur was supposed to react. He was supposed to cower, to wither, to flail, to agree to anything and everything that Merlin said, if only Merlin wouldn't kill him.
"Obliviousness doesn't suit you, Captain," Merlin said, seeing one of the Pirates in the corridor for the first time. Shaggy brown hair loose around his face, the scruff of a five o'clock that never seemed to fade, a faint, lopsided grin touching his lips, though there was a pinch of concern on his brow. Gwaine. Merlin recognized him, now.
"And how would you describe what just happened?" Arthur raised a brow -- whether to signal Gwaine, or to compound his point, Merlin wasn't sure -- and ground his arse against Merlin.
Merlin couldn't help the startled, aroused hiss that escaped him, and he retaliated by letting the whip first loosen and tighten around Arthur's throat. "Are we in port?"
"Are we?" Arthur asked, turning to Gwaine.
"Near enough," Gwaine said, a hand on the gun holstered at his waist. "Could kick him out of an airlock, he might make it across."
"Now, now, let's not threaten my property," Arthur said. Though his tone was teasing, he was scowling, and there was a weight to his expression, as if he meant every word. "I'd like him to feel at home."
"You agreed to drop me off at the nearest station in exchange for saving your life," Merlin reminded him.
"Nothing's stopping me from picking you up again," Arthur said wryly. He was economic in his movements, careful not to dislodge the razor-whip around his throat, and reached back to place his hands on Merlin's hips. "But if you must --"
Merlin had enough of Arthur's games. He shoved Arthur forward, careful to keep the whip loose, and held him firmly, using Arthur as a shield. "I must."
Arthur didn't answer, but there was a ghost of a smirk on his lips when he glanced at Merlin.
"Give the order to dock in port," Merlin said. "Have your men collect my things. Everything. Have them meet us at the docking bay. They'll have you returned intact only once I'm off the ship and well on my way."
Arthur made a tsking sound. "So demanding."
"In case you haven't noticed, I'm the one with the upper hand," Merlin said, letting the whip slide over the tender flesh of Arthur's throat, at once intimate and threatening, but not once cutting skin. Merlin knew that a proverbial knife to the Captain's throat wasn't much of an advantage. The Pirates outnumbered him, and he was fairly certain that they wouldn't care if Merlin killed their Captain. They were a bunch of opportunists even on the best of days; solidarity was only an adjective that could be used to describe them if everyone was getting a share of the loot. Still, Merlin hoped that Arthur was too distracted by the ribbon-razor edge at his throat to take that into consideration. "Just do it."
There was a long, weighty pause, as if Arthur were trying to fathom a way out of the situation, a way of regaining his ground. And there were ways, Merlin knew. This was Arthur's ship. It was his crew. And, since they were now in uncontrolled space, no doubt they had contacts at the free spaceport who would meet them on the other end and provide whatever backup that Arthur needed to subvert Merlin again.
Except there were none of the expected threats, no hedging bets, no counter-offers, no negotiation. A simple -- but careful -- shrug, as if it didn't matter, and Arthur said, "You heard him."
Gwaine made a half-hearted protest that not even an underpaid CorpsCop would believe, even with a bribe. "Are you sure? Because we could? And possibly afterward? The crew does like a good shanking? Or after all --" was accompanied with a grousing collection of the body armour parts neatly strewn across the floor. Once his arms were full, he trudged down the corridor without another word.
The shadows followed Gwaine and the other man until they disappeared down the corridor.
It was too obviously easy, Merlin knew.
"You can let me go now," Arthur said.
"Start walking," Merlin said, pushing Arthur's shoulder.
"Whichever airlock's going to be docking at the port."
Arthur led the way, though he was in no hurry. He gave Merlin a tour of the ship, magnanimously pointing out where everything was -- "The bridge up ahead, but it's just for show, I'm afraid. For some reason, our more reluctant guests like to see the big helm and old fashioned compasses. I refuse to have a parrot onboard, though. My men have better things to do than scrub bird shite off the walls and floors. And Gwaine's the one who wears the eye patch; he thinks it makes him look more dashing, but I haven't the heart to tell him that he looks rather… bohemian when he wears it. Command is a deck below --"
Merlin had to admit that it was a nice ship. Larger than the average cruiser, with wide corridors and even wider galleys, decorated in earthy hues and wood paneling that would easily pay for a working man's salary four times over, the Excalibur was more comfortable and welcoming than a regular transport or even a luxury liner. It was almost… homey. Merlin had seen some of this before, when the Pirates escorted him directly to the brig. He wasn't sure why Arthur was showing him around -- did he think Merlin would change his mind?
They passed a few crew members. A few odd looks were thrown their way, but they walked past without challenge. A few gave Arthur knowing smirks, while others shook their heads in something approaching disapproval.
It was all very confusing. Merlin never normally dealt with Pirates -- not up close, anyway -- and he was starting to see why he avoided them as a matter of principle. Their social norms were baffling. Apparently, seeing their Captain at an assassin's mercy and in danger of getting his throat cut clean off? It was just another everyday occurrence, and not worth alarm.
"Crew quarters are a deck above and a partition behind," Arthur was saying. "You'd like my suite. It has a great view --"
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Look out any sidescuttle, you'll get the same damn view."
"Not like this, believe me. Come on, I'll show you --"
Merlin clamped a hand on Arthur's shoulder and held him firm; the razor-whip tightened around Arthur's throat warningly. "The airlock, if you please."
Arthur huffed in annoyance. "Leon will tell us when we dock. It might be some time. Why not spend it in my bunk?"
"Or we could wait at the airlock," Merlin said.
"You're being unfairly resistant to my charms," Arthur remarked, gesturing with his hand to indicate the oncoming turn before he took it, giving Merlin enough warning to loosen the razor whip before he did. They went through a different corridor that was twisted in a scraggly W before emerging into an area that Merlin recognized from when he first came aboard. He relaxed, but only slightly, relieved that Arthur had stopped playing games, at least for now.
"You left me to rot in an eight by eight with a toilet that doesn't flush and a cot hard enough to double as hull plating," Merlin snapped. "I fear to see what sort of treatment I'll get if you were really trying."
"Oh, but how was the food?"
Merlin glanced at the back of Arthur's head, frowning. "What?"
"The food. How was the food? I told the cook to make sure you received the same cut I did --" Arthur made a small, scandalized sound. "They did feed you, didn't they? I'll have them keelhauled if they didn't."
"The food was fine," Merlin said, his tone subdued. He felt as if he'd just had the carpet pulled out from under him, and that was never an easy feat. "Just. Shut up."
It wasn't long after they arrived at the docking rings. Merlin's gear was packed neatly in a large duffel bag. No one was there, though Gwaine arrived a few minutes later, hopping up to sit on a large cargo container, his gun holstered but his expression intent. He watched Merlin like a hawk; Merlin ignored him in favour of calling up the vid feed on a nearby maintenance screen. The docking lights turned green.
Merlin made Arthur hand him the duffel bags when the airlock clicked, rotated, and released with a groan of equilibrating pressure.
Merlin took a step out onto the wobbly platform once satisfied that no one was at the other end, waiting for him with an execution squad. He walked to the very limits of the razor-whip before releasing Arthur with a flick of his wrist.
The material flattened and retracted, coiling around Merlin's fist.
"Thanks for the lift," Merlin said. "Hospitality was top-notch, but your accommodations were shite. You won't be getting a recommendation from me."
"A pity," Gwaine said.
"You caught us at a bad time," Arthur said, crossing his arms. The red circle around his neck was already fading away, but he didn't seem the least bit bothered at having worn a razor collar. "I'm sure we'll be seeing you again."
"If needs must," Merlin said, touching his brow with two fingertips and throwing them out in a rude salute. "Last resort and all."
Gwaine smirked. He raised a hand and waved a mocking good-bye.
"Oh, for future reference, since you seem to be into that sort of thing, you should know that I prefer to do the tying up." Arthur reached out and closed the airlock. Arthur winked at him just as the heavy door rolled shut.
"Prat," Merlin muttered, hefting his possessions higher on his shoulder. He had three priorities. Gearing up before someone decided that he was an easy mark, figuring out where he was right now, and hopping the next ship out.
The contract on Gaius Wiltshire had come to Merlin by way of one of his most trusted contacts, a man who might not be so trustworthy after all, and that would be the first place Merlin went, with a few stops along the way. Merlin walked away from Excalibur without a backward glance, and couldn't help feeling as if he were leaving something important behind.
Location: Excalibur, Pirate Warship, Pirate Space
Arthur watched the maintenance feed as the assassin disappeared through the docking rings. He considered accessing the spaceport's video feed, but he was sure that Lance was already taking care of that, downloading whatever he could. Instead, Arthur tapped the airlock, coding it shut against unexpected intrusion, and swallowed the bitter taste in his mouth.
He did not touch his throat. There was a residual sensation of icy hot and silky soft where the razor-whip had encircled his neck like a collar, but it wasn't half as bothersome as the memory of the assassin all around him. In front of him; behind him. The man's breath against Arthur's ear, the sharp sidelong glances, the hapless irritation and cocksure barbs.
Before Arthur went down to the brig, he had been torn between shagging Niall senseless and tossing him off his ship -- or both. As it was now, Arthur was having a difficult time stopping himself from opening the airlock and calling the man back.
Arthur wasn't wrong. The man was pretty. Under different circumstances, Arthur would have wined and dined him before luring him to bed, even if the whole killer for hire façade was a little daunting.
Niall wasn't really an assassin, was he? He certainly didn't act like one. Not with Arthur, in any case, but it was entirely possible that Arthur was romanticizing the profession in his head. Assassins were slick and suave, the use-them-and-leave-them sort, full of economical movement and morbid jokes. Or, they were highly-trained government agents -- from whichever government was inclined to train assassins from birth -- who had been transformed into genetically-enhanced cybernetic humans without souls and without heart.
The man who had recently graced Excalibur's brig was neither of those things. While he certainly had the preternatural grace and the unusually heightened senses, he was also an enigma. He'd fought off not one, but several White Legion drones. He'd kept Arthur behind him. He'd submitted to Arthur's mercy -- though possibly only because he had known that Excalibur was his only option to get away. He treated the crew with distant politeness, even reluctance, but the minute that Arthur entered his brig...
The man was insufferably smug, annoyingly confident, and frustratingly immune to Arthur's charms. And despite Arthur's failed attempts to win him over, the man had put himself in front of Arthur.
Selflessly, mindlessly, without hesitation.
"What's it going to take for you to admit that I was right?" Gwaine asked, sliding off from the top of the cargo container. He brushed his hands with single-minded fastidiousness, but his eyes never left Arthur.
"Two bottles of Galayan rum," Arthur said, walking past him. "And the price increases every time you rub my nose in it."
"Not my fault you can't see what's plain in front of you," Gwaine said, falling into step beside Arthur.
"Three bottles," Arthur said. Gwaine shrugged, as if it didn't matter to him. It probably didn't, either; Gwaine's ability to get his hands on even the rarest of contrabands was legendary.
They headed up the corridor, taking the quick route to the bridge and were nearly there when Gwaine said, "Though I can't really blame you. The man's gorgeous. That would distract anyone."
"Four," Arthur said, raising both brows.
Gwaine grinned, as if knowing that he'd struck a hit, and smacked Arthur hard on the shoulder. "Admit it, Captain. That little show you put on in the brig hardly stretched your acting skills because you meant every word. If you could've gotten into his pants, you would have --"
"Five," Arthur said, leaving Gwaine at the tactical console. He gave Leon a curt nod which was returned almost absentmindedly, but Arthur knew that Leon was focusing on his displays. They might be in unclaimed space, but that didn't mean that the Imperial fleet wasn't lurking around the corner, or that a rival Pirate Clan wasn't waiting to swoop down and relieve them of their booty. There were also mercenaries and non-human factions to watch out for, though those tended to steer clear of any ship broadcasting the Jolly Rogers.
Arthur stood behind Lance at the engineering station. It was a raised platform that gave him an eagle's-eye view of the bridge, though Lance was surrounded in holographic displays that blocked him from sight. The screens were rendered into several more dimensions than Arthur could see without a matrix monocle, and Lance's hands flew over a virtual keypad, commands scrolling through a green-and-black interface at blinding speeds.
"Do you have him?" Arthur asked.
"I have something," Lance confirmed. Out of consideration, he flipped the monocle up and switched the holographic display to plain three-dee, a map of the spaceport zooming in to follow a blinking red light out of the port and into the main concourse. Several more screens popped up -- a vid hack of the joke that passed for the station's security -- and Arthur caught glimpses of the assassin from several angles, though none of them were clear.
"Where is he going?"
"Not sure. He's changed directions several times, but as long as he's wearing the trackers, we'll see where he's headed," Lance said. There was a brief pause, and Lance scowled. "He's found one of them."
On the three-dimensional line map of the station, the large blinking red dot left a weak breadcrumb behind.
"How many did you tag him with?"
"Twenty. Twenty-two?" Lance stretched in his chair, leaning back until he could see Perceval. "Hey, Perce. How many did you --"
"Everything that we had in stock," Perceval said, not bothering to look up from his screen. "Thirty-five. Put most of them in obvious places, some where I'd think of looking, and wedged the last couple in one of those hidden compartments in his body armour. If we're lucky, he won't find them all."
Arthur stood up straight, his arms crossed. He watched as, one by one, the trackers were tossed into one alley or another, as they were passed on to other people on the station. The vid display shifted frequently, alternating between one feed and the next, keeping the assassin in view.
There was an uncomfortable itch between his shoulder blades. They didn't have time for this. They couldn't be sitting in port without attracting the wrong kind of attention, particularly since all they were doing was sitting there and monopolizing a docking ring. They didn't need any supplies, they had no merchandise to trade, they weren't meeting anyone. Someone was bound to notice.
Arthur stared at the screen anyway, silently counting as the trackers were discovered and discarded. Lance made increasingly distressed sounds as he slowly lost the ability to follow the assassin -- not only because the tracker signal was weakening, but because -- "Fuckshit. He knows what he's doing."
"He's ducking the feeds. He's either really lucky, or he knows the place, because he's walking through the blind spots."
Arthur grimaced. He cast a glance at Leon, noting how he sat ramrod-straight in the Captain's chair. Leon was his Second; the First Mate was tense even on a good day. With all the threats against them, Leon never relaxed until they were on the Pendragon homeworld. His obsession with keeping the crew safe had gotten them out of a pinch on more than one occasion, and Arthur had learned to read Leon's twitches and shifts as if they were a secret language.
Right now, that secret language spelled out a flashing yellow alert warning. There were significant threats at the outer edge of the Excalibur's sensors, bearing in their direction, and they probably had, oh, ten, fifteen minutes before Leon started yelling to cast off and for the pilots to slam full speed ahead at evasion coordinates.
The Excalibur was faster than most Imperial ships, but they wouldn't risk heading straight for Pirate space, never mind hint at coordinates that would lead the enemy right to their front door.
Arthur turned back to Lance. "What's the transmission range on those bugs?"
"You're looking at it," Lance said, gesturing absentmindedly at the flickering red lights. "I'm using the station's short-range sensors to pick up the low-grade radiation from the trackers for now. I'll have to hack into their network to access their communications centre to triangulate the exact location and find vids that can give us a feed."
Arthur exhaled heavily. "What have I told you about that word? I don't like hearing that word. I'll gut the next bastard who says it in my hearing, that's what I said. I distinctly remember that. Does no one else remember?"
Lance looked at him sidelong, an eyebrow raised.
"Why is there a but?" Arthur asked.
"Anything I do will be a waste of time," Lance said, pointing at the holographic line rendering of the space station. The trackers that the assassin had discarded were removed from active view, and the remainder -- if Arthur squinted a bit, the resolution was good enough to let him count the individual bugs -- were in one location, out of camera view. "He hasn't moved in a few minutes."
Arthur grimaced. A grunt escaped his chest. "We've lost him?"
"Clever bugger," Leon said with a nod. "Looks like he located every single tracker."
"Well, fuck," Arthur said. He took a step back, as if getting a bird's eye view of the space station would let him pick out the one man he was most interested in, but the seconds trickled past without so much as a familiar mop of black hair moving across the screen.
"Wait," Lance said, magnifying his holo-screen. He tapped a finger to count the trackers on the map, each virtual touch turning the tracker a different colour. He counted them under his breath. "Perce? Did you say thirty-five?"
"Thirty-five. I made double-sure."
"I'm only counting thirty-three. Thirty-four if you count the one he crushed," Lance said, glancing at Arthur. He turned to his terminal and entered a few commands; a long string of text rolled down the small screen on the hard console. Lance shook his head. "Thirty-four. I'm not getting any signals from the last one."
"Did he dump the trackers and disable one?" Arthur asked. "Or did that last one fail?"
"It's a Leodegrace tracker," Elyan said, rolling his eyes in irritation, protective as ever of his Clan's technology. "Lance's right. It's not pinging, and if I go back over the transmission, it looks like it received a shutdown command."
Elyan turned to his communications console, pulling up the raw data, and threw it at a holo-projector at Lance's station. The long thread of raw programming made Arthur's eyes bleed, but Elyan had highlighted a particular section confirming that the tracker hadn't been lost, misplaced, or destroyed.
Arthur drummed his fingers on the back of Lance's chair. "Why would he do that?"
"Maybe he's keeping souvenirs," Gwaine quipped.
Arthur shot him a glare. Gwaine shrugged his shoulders.
"Fine. He's keeping a souvenir. I can respect that. Leave him. Even if he were useful, which he's not," Arthur said, ignoring Gwaine's snort, "We're on a pressing timetable. Perce, cut us loose. Leon, plot a course."
"Easier said than done," Leon muttered, but the tight line of his body eased marginally, and he slumped over a terminal to compute the next coordinates. "Galahad, get us out of here."
"Gladly," Galahad said, twisting around to acknowledge receipt of their first stop along the evasion path. It would no doubt bring the Excalibur as close as it could get to their pursuers, because what was an escape if there wasn't anything to escape from? "How's the docking mechanism? I want visuals. Last time we were here, the numpties locked us to port, and, fuck, wasn't I pissed then?"
"We're loose," Perceval confirmed.
"Disengaging," Galahad said, reversing at full thrust before slamming forward at a high angle, coming close enough to buzz the station before leaving it to vibrate in the wake of engines going at maximum power.
Leon started to rise from the command seat, but Arthur waved him back. "Stay. Let me know if there are any changes. I'll be with Gaius."
"Aye, Captain," Leon said, settling in his seat. He was already focused on the screens around him, most likely tracking whatever had twigged their sensors.
Arthur had slid down the chute to the maintenance level before he realized that Gwaine had followed him out of the bridge. Gwaine waltzed out of the transport tube with a meaningful look that Arthur choose not to interpret. Instead, he asked, "Don't you have a job to do?"
"Probably," Gwaine said. He shrugged and stuffed his hands in his pockets.
Arthur sighed. "What do you want?"
"Oh, nothing. Though I admit wondering what you'll be doing about that piece of property that you left behind," Gwaine said, meandering in a circle around Arthur. "I'm given to thinking that, someone like him? There'll be a fair few hands wanting that one. We could net a fair profit, make up some dosh for what we've lost picking up that Healer --"
"He's not a piece of property," Arthur groused, elbowing past Gwaine. He hadn't meant to enact the little-known and very old Pirate Law, even if he'd been pushing the limits of plausible definitions. Technically, yes, the assassin belonged to him, but --
"Claimed him as yours, fair and square. I heard it, and so did Perce, and it's on record -- speaking of, you should see the playback. The two of you looked damn cozy, snuggling up against the wall --"
Arthur shot a murderous glare in Gwaine's direction.
Gwaine continued on undeterred. "All we've got to do is make it official, send out his three-dee, let it be known to far and wide that his arse belongs to Arthur Pendragon, and to please return if found, preferably unmolested --"
Arthur stopped dead. Gwaine nearly ran into him. "You want to post his holo on the public net? Are you mad? He's a bloody assassin --"
"Really?" Gwaine's brows shot up. "An assassin? I wouldn't have thought it, not the way he was so concerned with keeping you safe. From us. Your own crew. As if we would ever --"
Arthur shot him a look. "I recall a mutiny in the early days of our cooperative alliance. Didn't you lead it?"
Gwaine frowned, his mouth forming words that didn't come out, and he gestured sharply. "Ah, yes, there might have been such an incident. But that was before you saved my arse -- not that it needed saving --"
Arthur snorted. "A dozen enraged mercenaries against a drunk Pirate. Absolutely, yes. I recall you had them well in hand."
"I surely did," Gwaine said. "And my point is that we would never mutiny now. We're all mates, aren't we? Closer than brothers, some of us."
Gwaine thumped an arm around Arthur's shoulder. Arthur glared at the contact until Gwaine made an uncertain noise and drew away.
"Some of us," Gwaine repeated, his tone dubious, but undeterred. "In any case, we're the tightest-knit crew as far as he's concerned. No reason at all to suspect us of sneaking up on you to slide a knife between your ribs. And yet. He moved to protect you. You can't tell me he did it out of the goodness of his own heart --"
"He did it to gain the advantage. He wasn't getting off the ship without a hostage, and you damn well know that," Arthur snapped. "You leave him be, Gwaine. If you post the holo, he'll know who's done it, and I'm not of a mind to lose my head. I've come close enough once already."
Gwaine's eyes flicked to Arthur's throat, lingering there a moment too long. Arthur took a step back and turned around. "Funny thing about that collar of yours. There's not a mark on you, Captain. Do you know how hard it is to handle a cutting whip and not kill your best beloved with it?"
"Assassin," Arthur repeated. He paused before adding, "Six."
"Six?" Gwaine asked, confused.
"Six bottles you're up to now. Do you want to go for an even dozen?"
"May as well," Gwaine said, his boots clicking on the metal gangplank as he extended his stride to catch up to Arthur. "I'm just saying. Think about it some, Captain. As a favour to me. And eventually, you'll see the light and say, Gwaine, my friend, you were right. How can I ever repay you for helping me get my head out of my arse --"
"A full case of rum, and we'll see," Arthur said.
A ghost of a smile flit across Gwaine's lips, but he continued, "Because, look. The fact is, he's a good bloke. He didn't have to help Gaius -- could've collected the money and gone, even if it meant getting himself blown up in the process -- but he did. He didn't have to come with us to escort Gaius to the ship, we could've slung the old man over Perce's shoulder. And he absolutely didn't have to stay between you and that Needler the entire time."
The video that Lance had downloaded from the Lady Hiamela had been telling. The assassin hadn't been anywhere near Arthur when the White Legion Elite had made an appearance, but then, suddenly there he was, stopping the Needler's direct stalk toward Arthur as if he'd been there all along. Arthur hadn't thought anything of it, but now that it had been pointed out to him…
"And there's the thing in the brig. Heard me, he did, and I'm a sneak no one hears coming, so you explain that one to me. Saw the knife, too, moved faster than Galahad running for the head after he's had too much of Perce's chili. Kept you between him and... well, me?" Gwaine gestured flailingly toward himself. "If he were keen on getting himself on shore, he could've grabbed any of us at any time. You think the brig would hold the likes of him? You're deluded. He wasn't playing along with us. He was playing with us. He wanted to be here. He wanted to see your pretty face. What sort of self-respecting assassin hangs out with a bunch of plonkers like us and goes out of his way to protect the Captain who's captured him?"
Arthur didn't answer. He turned down the corridor to the medical bay.
There was a brief, satisfying silence before rapid footfalls banging on the deck caught Gwaine up to him.
"I could tell you what sort," Gwaine volunteered. "It's the sort of assassin who's got a crush on the bloke."
"Oh. Bloody. Stars, " Arthur swore, glancing at the ceiling to keep from rolling his eyes. "This again?"
"He's gorgeous. You're lonely," Gwaine said. "It's a match made in heaven. You're perfect for each other."
"Did you miss the part where I have no time for this?" Arthur slowed down just enough to let Gwaine catch up. "Our priority is the King. We have to save the King before the other Clans get wind of how ill he is and start a bloody rebellion. The last thing on the agenda -- Hells, it's not even on the list -- is to get me laid."
"Who said we can't do both?"
Arthur stopped and gave Gwaine a long look that hopefully conveyed Arthur's complete and utter irritation. Gwaine, oblivious, wrapped his arm around Arthur's shoulders again and pulled Arthur along on a leisurely stroll down the gangway.
"You're adorable," Gwaine said, almost cooing. Arthur elbowed Gwaine hard in the ribs; Gwaine grunted, but it only made him grin even wider. "But also an idiot. I checked the long-range, those were definitely Imperial cruisers heading for the station. Your guess is as good as mine -- actually, probably better than mine -- if they were waiting for us to show, or if they're checking every hole in space and hoping they'll trip over us --"
"Waiting for us. That's the most likely," Arthur said, because the Imperial fleet would have enough ships to keep an eye on most of the station hubs in uncontrolled space. Arthur was being generous, but he didn't think that the CorpsCops were stupid enough to dock in port while they waited for a Pirate ship to arrive, particularly not one that they were after. Typically, a CorpsCops ship would wait at the very fringes of sensor range and hope that a Pirate ship wouldn't be able to spot them before they came into range for an ambush.
Arthur wasn't certain how the Conglomerate hadn't caught on, yet, but Pirates had both cloaking technology and superior long-distance sensors for reasons, the least of which included not being caught in the middle of a pillage.
"Be that as it may," Gwaine said, sweeping his hand in the air as graciously as if he were at a Ball, charming a Lord or Lady into dancing with him, whether they wanted to or not, "Station records will note that one person disembarked from a ship that was there one second, gone the next. Don't you think the CorpsCops would take a minute to sweep the hub and find him?"
"You're assuming that he's not waiting for them," Arthur snapped. No Pirate of worth would trust an Imperial resident as far as they could throw them, and none of them were inclined to throw very far. Add an assassin into the mix, and Arthur would be hard-pressed to find any Pirate willing to put any faith in them. "He was probably meant to get on our ship, scope our forces, and report back --"
"A spy?" Gwaine tilted his head, musing thoughtfully. He shook his head. "No. I don't buy it. He might be the quiet sort, but he's got an open face. No guile in those eyes of his."
"And yet, not outside the realm of possibility," Arthur said coldly. The Pirate Clans were tightly-knit, allowing outsiders among their ranks only rarely. Despite the recent influx of citizens fleeing the Empire, it wasn't often that any of the Clans allowed a former Imperialist in their inner circle.
But it did happen, and to everyone's detriment. One such spy had been brought to the Kingsworld, where he revealed himself to be White Legion only moments before attacking the King.
"You need to be more trusting, Arthur," Gwaine said.
"Trusting? When he could easily be a spy --"
"You know that's bollocks, because the Blues don't act unless they've got years of intel under his belt. They're not going to act on barely five seconds of eyeballing the ship before they're tossed into the brig," Gwaine retorted. "He's going to have the Needlers on his arse, now, after what he did. Nobody one-ups the White Legion, even for a ploy to get him in our good graces. You think he's keen to get back into their pleasant company after humiliating them?"
Arthur didn't think so. The fight between the assassin and the White Legion had looked genuine enough to him, but anything could be staged with enough training and practice. He didn't say that out loud. Instead, he said, "If he's smart enough to find Perceval's trackers, he's smart enough to dodge Imperial Blues, and he's no concern of ours."
Gwaine opened his mouth to protest, but Arthur raised an eyebrow warningly.
"No. Concern. Of. Ours."
"Fine, fine," Gwaine said, dropping his arm from Arthur's shoulders, holding up his hands. "But you'll regret it, you know. Seemed like a nice bloke. Definitely easy on the eyes. And, just imagine -- all that physical training? He must be awfully flexible in all the right ways."
Arthur glowered. He hadn't thought about that at all.
"Fuck off," Arthur growled. He walked into the medical bay, stabbing the door lock. It closed with an unsatisfying whoosh.
Maybe, just maybe, Arthur had watched the footage from the Lady Hiamela one too many times. Maybe, just maybe, he'd been caught staring for too long at a zoomed-in and reconstructed close-up holo of the assassin. And maybe, just maybe, he spent a few showers with his hand on his cock, imagining how the assassin would feel pressed against him.
The reality had been much better than he'd originally thought.
Gwaine might think differently, but Arthur wasn't a fool. Arthur wasn't about to engage in personal proclivities with a man he didn't know, never mind one who was a professional killer. There were enough Imperial bounties on Arthur's head without adding more for associating with an assassin -- or for that assassin to be more interested in claiming the reward for Arthur's head than in spending the rest of his life with Arthur. The last time Arthur had run a vanity check on the Net, the fee for his body, preferably dead, was something on the order of one hundred silver Sterling.
Not quite on the same order as some of the more notorious Pirates, but he was catching up. If the bounty ever reached a hundred million, Arthur might be tempted to turn himself in -- and if he was tempted, who else might be?
Even if the assassin wasn't interested in -- or hadn't known about -- the bounty, it didn't matter how pretty the assassin was. His agenda was unknown, and his loyalties had likely been sold for a fee. Arthur couldn't afford the uncertainty.
Still. Gwaine was right in one respect. The assassin was likely very flexible. In the brig, he had moved like a coiled snake, slippery and smooth, full of grace and economical movement. Arthur wondered how it would feel to have the assassin in his bed, squirming beneath him --
Arthur banged his head on the bulkhead and groaned.
"Captain? Is everything all right?" Gaius asked, his voice gentle, curious, even deferential. Arthur turned around.
The Healer was sitting in the middle of the empty treatment room in front of a gurney littered with paperwork and file folders. There was an electronic tablet nearby, its access to the ship's systems disabled, but it appeared to have been cast aside in favour of an old-fashioned pencil and a pad of paper.
The Pirates had learned a long time ago that the best way to keep their information from the Net and protected against spyware attacks from the Empire was to maintain a paper record. Paper was easier to destroy. The information it contained couldn't be recovered, restored, or used against them, and with a few technological tweaks to ensure that the paper degraded quickly and couldn't be scanned, the Pirates could secure their entire database.
Except paper was bulky, heavy, and not easily stored; they were nuisances in zero-G. The only reason that Arthur had his father's medical files on board at all was to give the Healer a running start on making a diagnosis and finding a cure.
"Everything's fine," Arthur said. He gestured toward the papers. "Any progress?"
Gaius peered over a pair of archaic glasses, steel-rimmed and around, and spread his hands over the papers. "No more than yesterday, Captain. I am afraid there is little that I can do without examining the patient myself."
Arthur approached the gurney. He nodded glumly, having expected as much, and picked up one of the sheets of paper. His eyes turning glassy as he skimmed over the medical terms, the numbers and units meaning nothing to him.
"Forgive my curiosity, but did we dock in port?"
"We did," Arthur allowed, answering slowly and carefully. He wasn't so paranoid to think that Gaius was a Conglomerate spy, but he harboured a secret fear that the Healer would leave them before fulfilling his end of the contract. Arthur had brokered Gaius' emigration from the Empire through trusted intermediaries for the low, low cost of treating an unnamed patient for an undisclosed illness. It was a bartered exchange of goods and skills that left Arthur feeling guilty for having the better end of the deal, but Arthur was a Pirate, and he meant to see himself paid in full. "Briefly. We're underway again."
"Ah," Gaius said, glancing down at the papers in his hands. He skimmed the contents as if only now finding an important detail, and he didn't raise his eyes to Arthur when he asked, "And Niall?"
"Niall?" Arthur asked. He feigned disinterest to cover up his frustration. He knew that the name was as fake as Olaf's left eye. Arthur didn't like the name. It didn't suit him at all.
Gaius' eyebrow inched upward. Considering how many questions Arthur had asked about the assassin, he was willing to allow that he deserved that raised brow for pretending he didn't know whom Gaius was talking about.
"Oh. Niall," Arthur said, shrugging. Gaius glanced up over the top edge of his papers, an eyebrow raised. "We left him behind. It was his port of call."
Gaius' brow rose to touch his hairline. Arthur found himself elaborating.
"He wanted to leave, so we let him go. We're Pirates, not slavers."
Gaius frowned, looking down at his papers. He put the sheets on the gurney and removed his glasses, leaning an arm against the surface.
"You're disappointed," Arthur guessed, because it was hard to miss on the Healer's expressive face. "You miss him."
Gaius half-chuckled, his chest heaving at some sort of private joke. "I suppose I do."
"He was contracted to assassinate you," Arthur pointed out. He felt as if he were embroiled in some sort of conspiracy -- everyone was suddenly on Niall's side, and not his. Arthur was the one who had engineered Gaius' escape. Arthur's man was the one who had been killed while waiting for Gaius. Arthur stayed behind to slow the White Legion down long enough to make certain that the Healer made it on board. The fact that the assassin had shown up to complement the plan that Arthur had painstakingly laid out was an afterthought, and not the cause of their success.
"He saved my life," Gaius said.
"You don't seem to understand," Arthur said. "He was paid to kill you."
A faint smile crossed Gaius' lips. He put his hands on his knees and stood up with a creaky groan. "No, I do not think that he would have."
Arthur stared. "Hired killer. Paid to assassinate people. To make them not alive anymore. To kill them dead. Why am I suddenly the villain in this scenario? How did everyone on my ship suddenly step over the line to his side?"
Gaius hesitated, reaching for a spiral-bound booklet that had the full compilation of Uther's health records, starting from the time that he was only the head of Clan Pendragon, and not the King-elect. "I cannot vouch for your crew and only speak for myself, but… I have a certain familiarity with the fellow. It seems as if I knew him, though we have never met before. There was something about him. I am not certain what it was, but I trust him."
"You trust him," Arthur repeated. The word settled comfortably in his chest. Trust. It was a good word. It was how Arthur felt toward the assassin. Inexplicably drawn, yes, but in the absence of truly knowing the man, the attraction could be waved away as the result of physical desire. But trust? Trust did not come easily to a Pirate, but trust, it was. He had been unable to shake the inexplicable trust that had waved away Leon's insistence that Arthur at least wear body armour if he were about to dangle himself in an assassin's cell like a tasty morsel in front of a hungry shark.
Arthur could fight all that he wanted against this irrational trust. He had many arguments with himself, using perfectly logical arguments about betrayal and loyalty and uncertain allegiances, but it was a losing battle. It rankled Arthur to hear how he felt described so precisely, and he covered it up by pinching his fingers on the bridge of his nose. When he dropped his hand, he caught Gaius giving him a strange look.
"What is it?"
Gaius started to speak but shook his head instead, smiling sadly to himself. "For a moment, you reminded me of someone I knew, once, a long time ago. In some ways, you even look like him."
Arthur bowed his head in a polite nod. "I hope he was a friend."
"A man I respected a great deal," Gaius said, sitting down again. He placed the booklet down, but didn't open it, playing with his glasses like a man lost in memory. "His passing was… tragic. It affected… an Empire."
Arthur wanted to laugh, because no one was important enough that their death would impact an entire civilization, but one look at the still-palpable grief in Gaius' expression forced him to swallow down the urge. He coughed awkwardly instead, and said, "I'm sorry to hear that. He must have been a good man."
"He was --"
The natural white light in the medical bay blinked off and blinked on again in a dull, monochromatic red. A low siren blare blasted through the ship.
"All hands on deck. Incoming enemy ships," Leon said over the 1MC. He sounded almost bored, and Arthur chuckled.
His smirk broadened when he saw how pale Gaius had become at the announcement. "Don't worry, Gaius. I promised you'd be safe, and you will be."
He barely acknowledged Gaius' nod before leaving the medical bay. He squeezed through a swarm of crewmen heading for the port weapons bay and hurried to the bridge.
Leon spotted him almost right away, ceding the Captain's chair. Lucan was alert on sensors, still adjusting his headgear, and Lance was swirling around in his seat, flicking a finger across several holo-consoles to shunt power to different sections of the ship.
"Shields up and spooling engines, Captain," Leon said, sliding into his seat. He activated the consoles and strapped on his belt as a matter of course. "Four Imperial Cruisers coming fast on our position. They didn't ping on the passive scans. I almost didn't see them."
"Getting an intermittent signal," Lucan complained. "What did you do to my sensors?"
"Completely reconfigured them while I was on dog watch last," Leon offered, grinning broadly. "Played a few rounds of Space Invaders. It was a boring shift."
Lucan squawked. "You didn't!"
"I didn't," Leon said, turning serious almost at once. "Check your sensors when this is over. Something's screwy with them. One second the cruisers weren't there, the next…"
Leon paused and gestured in a flourish toward the main vid screen before returning his attention to his consoles.
"Port weapons bay ready," Gwaine said.
"Starboard weapons ready," Perceval said.
"Why is it always the CorpsCops? I hate them. I hate them so much. Where's Geraint?" Galahad asked, craning his head for a look over his shoulder. "I outran these plonkers last time. It's his bloody turn."
As if saying his name was tantamount to summoning the genie, Geraint trudged onto the bridge, scratching his belly. His short hair stuck up on one side of his head, and he yawned noisily before buttoning up his shirt and tucking it into his trousers. He was in his stockings; he hadn't bothered with his boots. Geraint sat down in the pilot's seat, buckled himself in, and knuckled his eyes. "Where are we?"
"In space?" Gwaine said. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure we're in space."
Geraint gave Gwaine a two-fingered salute, unlocked his console and took over the controls, and dipped the ship in a whirlwind ribbon spiral to duck out of sensor lock. He took a moment to check their relative position before announcing -- a few minutes too late, "I have the helm."
"We've noticed," Arthur said dryly.
"How badly shall we humiliate the CorpsCops today?" Geraint asked.
As tempted as he was to show the Conglomerate's army how it was really done, Arthur reminded himself that they were here for something that exceeded their usual business-and-pleasure missions. "Lose them and fold us out of here. The sooner we get to the Kingsworld, the better."
"Aye, Captain," Geraint said, his tone subdued. "Is the nav up?"
"It's up," Galahad said, his brow pinched in concentration as he switched his display from helm controls to pure navigations. "Navigation active."
"Do me a favour and set a course."
Galahad typed in a few commands and coordinates. "Course set."
"FTL engines at maximum," Lance said.
Geraint lifted Excalibur's nose until they were on a sudden, peripheral course to the CorpsCops chasing after them, veering hard to starboard just as they matched course. Perceval fired off a few warning shots out their starboard-aft cannons to force the cruisers to dodge and change plotted course, gaining them a few precious seconds as Geraint jerked Excalibur in a nosedive sharp enough that Arthur felt the pressure of acceleration pushing him into his chair.
"Entering foldspace in three, two --"
There was a faint flash of blue-purple light across the vidscreen, a confusing overlay of stars, and a pleasant absence of CorpsCops. Geraint spent a few minutes securing the coordinates, exchanging quiet words with Galahad, and unbuckling himself from his chair.
"I'm going back to bed," he announced, pausing to salute Arthur with a lackadaisical flick of his hand.
"Weapons secure," Gwaine said, standing up abruptly. He was halfway across the bridge, leaving his seat swirling around behind him, and added, "I'm going to join him."
"No, you're not," Geraint called over his shoulder.
"Damn it," Gwaine said. He stared longingly at Geraint's retreating form before exchanging a long look with Arthur. "One day, I'll convince him."
Arthur smirked. "And on that day, I'll win the ship pool."
"With my luck," Gwaine said, heaving a despairing sigh that didn't quite go with the knowing glint in his eyes, "You'll bed your boy before I bed mine. Don't worry, Captain. We'll find him again."
Leon glanced over his shoulder with a raised brow. Lucan ducked his head and smirked. Perceval pointedly looked everywhere but at Arthur, his soft laughter barely muffled.
"Two cases of rum," Arthur snarled.
Location: Catha Spaceport, Uncontrolled Space
Chiku Shan, Merlin's agent in the Volante system, was killed eight system days after the contract on Gaius Wiltshire was supposed to have been completed. He was found hanging upside down, eviscerated from groin to throat, his guts dripping down onto a playground.
Copperfin, an associate who sometimes passed on assignments, nearly exclusively based in the Hadrian Wall cluster, was found dead one system day after Chiku Shan. He'd been losing at poker, but he'd died with a bloody smile around his throat. None of the other people at the table had seen who had killed him.
Kitty Five-Kills, who had more than five kills credited to her, and who wasn't really named Kitty, but Freya, was on planet Aurora 8 when Merlin found her. Her body was covered in second degree burns, her face swollen from the heat, and she'd been drowned three days after Copperfin.
Alator, the elusive underground agent who operated solely via the hacker Net and was virtually untraceable, turned up on Catha spaceport, surrounded by a bank of holographic screens, his brain activity powered by the ship's systems.
It was four days after Merlin had found Freya.
Too late to save Alator.
He'd been posed.
Alator was sitting in a plush purple faux-leather chair, his knees slightly apart, his hands on the armrests, his head tilted in mocking contemplation. His eyes were glazed with death, and not with the distance that came with being perpetually jacked in. His mouth was slack as if in mid-word, and blood dripped from a fingertip and onto the floor.
Alator hadn't been dead long.
The three-dee was playing in a split-screen of a footie match between New Amsterdam and Manchester Seven, broadcasted from the stadium three systems over, and a hacked ship security vid stream pointed at the rental's door. If Alator had been paying attention, there was no way that he could have missed an assassin. There was only one easy way in.
Merlin pinched the bridge of his nose until he couldn't feel the dull throb in his head anymore, but it didn't do anything against the pain of knowing that all these people had died because of him.
Chiku Shan had always known the quickest and fastest way to contact Merlin. Copperfin wasn't much of an assassin, but he knew how to evaluate a contract and ensure that it went to the right person. Alator had been the one to pass on the contract, and there was no sense in Freya's death, no way to associate her to him, until Merlin realized that he'd been at Kitty's courtesan house when he'd received notice of the contract, too busy trading stories with her over warmed mead to really pay attention to the details.
Someone was eliminating every source that Merlin could possibly use to track the owner of the contract, but Freya…
Freya had been a warning. A hint of things to come. A threat that everything Merlin held dear would be destroyed, that he would be next.
As if the great assassin, Emrys could be so easily cowed.
Merlin rose from his crouch with a suppressed growl. It was one thing to set him up. It was quite another to attempt to kill him in the process. Eliminating the go-betweens who were involved in putting the contract in Merlin's hands was just one of the many hazards of the trade. It was Chiku Shan's own damn fault that he'd forgotten his own precautions and that Alator had gotten sloppy and had been found somewhere outside of the virtual.
But it was something else entirely when they went after Merlin's friends.
There was something here that he wasn't seeing. He couldn't help remembering Arthur's questions.
Who are you? What do they want with you?
On the surface, he was Emrys, one of the most elusive, sought-after and hunted assassins in the Empire. There existed no trace of him on the Net, no one dared claim having seen his face, and any and every attempt to capture him had ended in tears. Not Merlin's, of course.
I'm nobody. He was the last of his line, and once he was gone, his House would die. Hundreds of thousands of years of collective knowledge, training, and magic would disappear, vanished into the ether. Perhaps someday, a ship would stumble upon the planet where the House was hidden and find the old texts, the digital files, the people who had managed to survived without the head of the nearly extinct bloodline.
Whatever they unearthed would remain as relics of an era of glory that had ended in shame. The words on the pages of the books authored by the old Masters would be little else but indecipherable symbols that not even the most sophisticated intergalactic translator could crack. Those books were written in the shadow language, and the only ones who could read it by right of genetic memory were of his House, however few remained.
And those among the traitorous White Legion who shared that blood.
Merlin stared at the holo-screen. He ignored the footie game and stared at the live streaming vid of the front entrance.
It wasn't who he was. It was what he knew.
What that was, exactly, Merlin didn't know, and it would take him a millennia to guess. Even he didn't know the cumulative history of the House of Shadows.
But he knew who would.
Merlin glanced at Alator's body. He took Alator's left arm and tapped the implanted wrist console. "Alator? Are you there?"
Alator's lips were a strange shade of blue and grey. His eyes were bloodshot and yellow. His skin was pale, marbling around the throat. Blood settled in his body, leaving him with a reverse blush that was sickly and unappealing.
There was no answer to his question, though he wasn't entirely certain that he expected one. Alator might have lived half in the Net, half in reality -- and even then, Merlin was being generous with the ratio -- but he wouldn't have known to leave a message for Merlin with his ghost in the machine. Whoever had killed him had either taken advantage of Alator's distraction in the virtual, or hadn't given Alator the time to program a warning.
Merlin left Alator the way he had found him.
The killer had come and gone in mere minutes. Merlin could picture it in his mind's eye -- a quick break through the security lock, because even the Net couldn't prevent a manual override; four steps from the doorway to the chair; a needle in the throat. Four steps in reverse, a quick exit, the reset of the door lock.
A great deal of foreknowledge would have been needed to execute this kill.
Merlin glanced at the security stream on the holo.
Foreknowledge. Or surveillance.
It occurred to Merlin that if someone was taking great pains to eliminate every avenue that might lead back to them, the only reason that they would have taken time out from hunting down Alator to kill Freya was to get his attention.
The security stream flicked.
Merlin's hand went to his pulse gun on reflex. He pulled the shadows in the room all around him and moved out of the way out of sheer instinct.
A barrage of bolts struck the area where he'd been only a fraction of a second ago. Alator's head jerked forward with enough force to throw his body forward in a slump.
Someone came into the room.
Nearly two metres in height. One hundred thirty kilo, not counting roughly thirty to forty kilo of armour and weapons. White solid plate armour over seventy percent of his body, the remnants articulated reinforced netting at the joints. A fitted three-dimensional helmet operating on the pure electronic, without openings for vision or air. A coarse green-grey cloak crackled with camouflage, struggling to maintain mirroring with the background as its wearer moved fast into the room.
The bolts had come from a prehensile extrusion of his left forearm; a faint click confirmed a reload. The helmet twisted from side to side to scan the room. The man's arm dropped in hesitation, in confusion. His prey was no longer there. Merlin was no longer there.
The door slid shut behind the commando.
A smile and a scowl warred for dominance on Merlin's face.
There were two types of soldiers in the White Legion: those who had betrayed the House of Shadows and taken all their skills and magic with them, and those who had proved themselves worthy to join the ranks of men who served a Conglomerate in exchange for a pocketful of silver instead of an Emperor out of love and loyalty.
This soldier had no Shadow magic. He was no son of a traitor. He was a man, pure and simple, stationed here with the hopes of luring Emrys into the open, taking advantage of the situation in the unlikely hope to use it to propel himself up the echelon of rank. Merlin knew his type.
An easy opponent. Too easy.
It was insulting.
Merlin dropped the shadows and fired the pulse gun in the same motion. The commando moved -- snake-fast, enhanced by modified genetics and superior armour mechanics -- but he moved wrong.
Right into Merlin's anticipated line of fire.
The bolts on the commando's forearm shot out, one by one, all in slow motion, no doubt triggered by targeting technology that operated outside conscious thought. They exploded, one by one, in a domino cascade.
The flash threw the commando's arm back, but the armour engaged stabilizer magnets and kept him upright. His arm wasn't blown off, but the crisp white of the plate from fingertip to shoulder was discoloured and the articulation netting at the joints was smouldering.
The commando's armour had fixed him in place; Merlin would be remiss not to take advantage. He fired again.
The first shot hit the commando square in the torso, a black scorch mark running down the torso before the power output was rerouted from the magnets to a modulated shield. The second shot was absorbed into the force field, but Merlin knew the blast would be enough to blur the commando's vision with the retorting power buzz.
Merlin closed the distance between them, holstering his gun, drawing punch knives in both hands. The commando's force field cleared, and the armour's automatic reflex blocked Merlin's first blow before restoring control to the human driving it. The man's reactions were sluggish, at first, still disoriented by the disharmonized force field, and Merlin got in close enough that the soldier couldn't initiate the armour's power weapons.
The force field dropped, like Merlin expected. He punched.
The short blades of the punch daggers were a nano-sharpened microfibre of a type superior to those used in surgery, too sharp to be safely handled, outlawed in seven galaxies. The edges cut through the tough plate armour layer, through the secondary body armour, and compromised the suit's seal, but did no real damage to the man beneath.
A bruise, maybe a scratch.
But the main control cluster was located in the lower right quadrant of the White Legion's armour, and cutting to the core gave Merlin the results he wanted.
The armour fritzed.
The soldier swung his arm to free himself; Merlin danced away obligingly before coming in for a fast six-punch strike -- upper left torso, just under the collarbone; disarticulated elbow guard, right arm; the paper-thin joint at the left groin; the sliver of body armour visible just under the right armpit; the fragile joint at the left wrist; the slide-connection of helmet to plate at the right side of the man's throat.
The commando staggered. There was a shriek-flash as one of his armour's defensive capabilities came online and immediately failed, a strangled sound as the armour attempted to seal the new openings, a creak-smash as the forty extra kilograms of unnecessary weapon weight dragged him to the ground. The commando raised a weak arm to block Merlin's next blow, and Merlin struck in a rapid left-right punch until the face-plate was completely smashed in.
Imperial body armour was designed to protect the wearer in combat. It was also designed to prioritize the wearer's life in a compromised environment. The onboard AI wasn't necessarily smart enough to determine what a compromised environment was -- only that the wearer was in danger.
It immediately retaliated by increasing the internal pressure to compensate for the constricted helmet. The few injuries that Merlin had scored were deep and dangerous, trickle-tear points near major arteries and organs, and with just the right change in pressure --
Merlin moved out of the way as the armour expanded. The commando froze, his body going rigid, before spasming once, twice, and --
Collapsing like a rag doll.
A faint beep filled the air.
Merlin sheathed his weapons and moved toward the exit. He glanced at the security feed on the holo-vid and saw the same, familiar flicker of an interrupted feed that had heralded the arrival of the first soldier.
He swung left, hugging the wall, pulling the shadows around him just as the doors slid open. Three White Legion soldiers marched through.
And stopped dead. They took in the scene.
A fellow soldier face-down on the ground, white armour smeared with the black ash of pulse weapon fire, swollen even at the articulated joints where the onboard AI triggered internal pressure corrections to seal the inner suit, blood trickling out of open cuts because the suit couldn't contain it all.
Station gravity pulled Alator's weight until it slid off the edge of the chair and thumped three times -- knee, torso, head -- on the ground.
The soldiers, spooked, on high-alert, opened fire on Alator.
Merlin slipped out of the room just as the doors automatically slid shut.
It wouldn't take the White Legion long to realize that Merlin was no longer in the room, and Merlin got moving quick. He clung to the shadows until he was out of the range of the security feed outside Alator's room, emerging in a service corridor immediately before a civilian footpath. He counted several beats before chancing a look around the corner, and, seeing no one in official uniform, stepped out behind a group of men wearing blue coveralls. He kept his head down, changed directions frequently, and worked his way out of the pleasure section of the station before accessing one of the terminals.
Merlin checked first for alerts. He found none. He didn't think there would be any alerts as long as this particular station was in the unrestricted zone, right outside Imperial space, but even the smallest blip in the system could indicate a shutdown somewhere else.
The White Legion worked in squads of threes. The Elite worked alone or with a complement of three. Three soldiers had come into the room after their wayward comrade. That meant either there were two more White Legion commandos running loose and unaccounted for, or there were two Elites with two complements and two extra wayward soldiers somewhere on the station.
Merlin ran his finger down the terminal database and connected to the port. He skimmed the list, hoping to find answers, wanting to know what he was up against. There were plenty of ships with fake IDs out this way, and he couldn't hope for an Imperial ship to register under their proper name, but someone up in the command centre of the station made a habit of scanning ship categories, and --
Two Imperial cruisers were at port. A cruiser rarely carried more than a single Elite and their complement or more than two Needler squads. Merlin recalculated his odds.
He was up against either two Elites and six soldiers -- five, now that he'd disabled one -- or there were only five more soldiers trawling the station for him.
He was neither equipped for those kinds of odds, nor secure enough in his position on this station to have sufficient escape routes prepared. It was time to leave.
Preferably on a ship faster than the Imperial cruisers.
He double-checked the port complement while he considered his options. There were a few small ships docked in port, but none that he could pilot himself. A few more were leaving -- slow transports, trawlers, merchant ships -- but in the opposite direction of where he wanted to go, and they were typically among the first to throw down arms and open their hatches wide whenever the Imperials came knocking for an inspection. There were a few cruiser-class ships, smaller than the Imperials, one of them with a familiar engine configuration that was used as a mask for an illegal slipstream drive --
Merlin checked the transponder code for the slipstream ship. He blinked and checked the transponder code again.
It was the Unpleasant Surprise.
Merlin knew he couldn't be this lucky. Will rarely came out this way, preferring to work as an intermediary between the mercenaries and the outer reaches -- the colonies who were so far-flung from Imperial space and produced materials that the Conglomerate had long deemed illegal, but were in high demand regardless. If Will was here, it was because he had a cargo hold to unload.
Which meant a lighter ship and a faster getaway, if only Merlin could convince him to take on a single passenger.
Merlin stilled. This was too perfect, too pat. He ran it through his head once, twice, three times, but he couldn't remember an occasion when he might have slipped up and hinted that he had any kind of association with Will. If anything, he had always gone out of his way to avoid Will, and that had done wonders for their friendship. And yet, they were friends regardless, one willing to do anything for the other, even to come to the rescue.
"Fuck," Merlin breathed. Will might be a careless, flippant arse, but he was careful. There was a reason why he'd never ended up in someone's brig, why he'd never gotten jacked by Pirates or mercenaries or so-called law-abiding citizens who just wanted a piece of easy money. Will was smart, and he was loyal -- he would never have even joked about knowing an assassin, never mind Merlin. Not even if he were drunk. Not even if he were drugged. Not even if he were bragging at the dice table, trying to one-up everyone else.
Not even if he was angry with Merlin because Merlin had ignored him yet again.
Freya knew them both. Had known them both. Dinner at her loft. Free billets at her courtesan house, even if Will only ever used them with Freya and Merlin didn't partake in pleasures of flesh unless he was absolutely certain that they were completely anonymous. They might have pretended that they'd only just met, but it was hard to cover up the ease that they had with each other, and Freya wouldn't have missed that.
And Will, the wanker… he might have admitted to Freya that he'd known Merlin since they were boys.
"Fuck. Fuck." Merlin's hands clenched tight, the knuckles cracking. This was a trap, with Will as a lure. Whoever was coming after Merlin would know that Merlin had found the others by now -- Chiku Shan, Copperfin, Freya, Alator -- and that he wouldn't miss the connection between Will's mysterious presence here and the deaths of those who were associated with him.
"Fuck." Merlin's fist came down hard, shadow-sheathed in a cutting blade, and both dented and sliced the metal panel next to the console. He couldn't let someone else die because of him. He couldn't let someone else die for him.
And he wasn't going to lose Will. Not Will. Aside from a handful of people who remained at the House of Shadows, Will was the only person who knew Merlin, and the idea of losing him was on par with losing himself.
Merlin bombed the terminal with fake trails, including a search on a transport, the purchase of three tickets on three different ships, and an uncomfortable scrutiny of the Imperial cruisers docking station before glancing around.
Two white-armoured commandos rounded the corner at the end of the roundabout. A third one joined them from a perpendicular route.
Someone cried out, "Shite! Needlers!"
The crowd scattered. Civilians and not-so-civilians mobbed the central core. There was honour among thieves, and in this case, the honour was in slowing down the White Legion and giving the poor, targeted bastard -- whoever he was -- a chance to escape.
Merlin used the distraction. He shadowed across the centre, ducking and dodging past the swarm of people covering up for those who had something to hide, and ran across the terminal until he reached the elevators. He didn't wait for the antigrav platform to arrive. He cracked the tube open and let himself fall.
Guidance lights flashed as he dropped; Merlin counted them until he reached twenty, and cast a sufficiently large shadow around himself to mimic an elevator platform. The sensors detected the shape as Merlin fell further and faster; the emergency safeties triggered and reversed gravity, slowing him down.
He was stopped on the lowest port level, as calculated. The doors slid open and Merlin stepped out as casually as possible, dismissing the shadow, brushing himself off. A round man with a balding M-pattern brushed past him to get to the elevator. Merlin grabbed his collar and pulled him back before he fell to his death.
"Oi! What's wrong with the lift?"
Merlin gave him a Do I look like I work here, mate shrug and kept walking.
He scanned the wide-open hangar space, ducking past antigrav transports hauling cargo -- both spaceport-mandated and in transit -- between the station holds to the ships. Workers in orange and blue and black coveralls brushed past him heading the other way; a woman in a bright red uniform and a hard hat shouted into her comms and raced across the platform. Merlin kept his head down, his stride steady, and looked up every so often to check for Will's slipstream.
Merlin helped himself to an unattended comm set, looped his own setup through the broadcast, and flicked through the channels until he was listening to the station's alert frequency.
He walked past an Imperial cruiser, the nose painted a foreboding black, the issue number covered up with enough camouflage plating to make it look like it was a completely different ship altogether. There were two dressed-down undercover Blues patrolling the airlock, but they barely glanced up as Merlin walked past them with a group of port mechanics dressed in black coveralls.
Merlin moved faster as soon as he was out of direct line of sight.
"Will. Will. Where the fuck did you dock, Will?" Merlin muttered. Will wouldn't be caught dead on the upper passenger platforms, and he wouldn't come within a light-year of the merchant dock. He had to be on this level, because nothing else would suit him -- proximity to the nearest dive bar, associates who would happily turn off the security feed during certain dubious transactions, and, as a bonus, there was always an Imperial cruiser docked nearby.
Will liked operating right under their noses. He would flaunt his illegal wares one day, only to have completely divested himself of contraband before the Blues ever caught up to him when he crossed into Imperial space. It was a miracle that he hadn't been thrown in a brig by now.
His nonchalant flamboyance was the reason that the House of Shadows no longer used Will as transport from their exiled planet. There was no doubt of Will's loyalty. Will wouldn't give them up, not even under pain of torture, not even if the Imperial sorcerers used arcane arts to pry the coordinates of the new Shadow homeworld from his memory, but they couldn't run the risk that Will would be followed by the CorpsCops.
There was a flash of grey to Merlin's left. Merlin ducked his head and touched the shadows in the well of a wide freighter, exhaling in relief.
A piece of equipment, nothing more.
Merlin kept moving. He snatched someone's overcoat, large and bulky and reeking of engine lubricant and human fluids, and put it on. Beggars couldn't be choosers, and assassins ducking the White Legion had no choice at all.
He had nearly walked the entire outer ring before he spotted the familiar slipstream. The ship was full of smooth lines and sharp planes, the outer plates a shiny silver marred by the blowback of live arms fire. There was no name on the outside of the ship, no visible flag of alliance, provenance, or association, and the sleekness of the Unpleasant Surprise had attracted Pirates and privateers on more than one occasion for more than the possibility of what was in its holds.
But Will was nothing short of brilliant. No one could get on board without his say-so. There was an electrified field at the loading bay that not even Merlin could get past -- and Merlin knew it existed only because Will had tested it on him.
Merlin switched the borrowed comms to the control tower and switched to the private frequency to the Unpleasant Surprise's berth.
"Hiho, Tower," Will said, his voice open and cheerful, hiding a cautious edge. "How can I help you this fine evening? Did you forget to charge the premium percentage on the docking fees? Did Earem tell you that I didn't pay the grease? Oh, shite. I bet this is about Charlotte? This is about Charlotte. I knew that wasn't her real name, it sounded too classy. I promise I treated her with the respect a girl like her deserves --"
Merlin shook his head. Will hadn't changed one bit. He didn't bother to disguise his voice when he said, "Actually, this is the port authority letting you know that your passenger has arrived."
"The fuck you mean my passenger? I'm not -- wait. Who is this? Is this Jem? Jemmy? You owe me money, you bleeding wanker, not the other way around --"
"Will. I'm coming in. Disable the field."
"What field?" Will asked, feigning ignorance. Merlin had gotten through the outer airlock by the time Will caught up with what Merlin said. "Oh, shit. Fuckinghell, Ems. Where have you been? I've been here six bloody days. Six -- and that's not even a standard day, this fucked up station's got some racket going, calling eighteen hours a day. Have you any idea of the fees I've been paying, sitting in dock like a numpty? You were supposed to be here four days ago -- and that's four standard days. Give me five seconds --"
Merlin frowned. Will had been waiting for him? Was this some sort of trap? Had he just walked into the lion's den, and there would be Elite waiting for him when he walked onto the ship?
He decided that he didn't have any choice. If there were Elites waiting for him, it was still better than dealing with a full complement of White Legion all at once. He'd rather face two than six, and he'd rather face six than twelve, even if the Elites were those among the Legion with shadow skills and who could, potentially, take him down.
Merlin scanned the port before shutting the outer airlock. He bounded across the boarding plank and into the ship, pulling the shadows around him before anyone could spot him through the clear walkway.
The hatch rolled shut right behind him, the electrical field igniting so fast that it had the hair on the back of Merlin's neck standing up on end.
"Fuckinghell," Will said, his voice sounding tinny over the ship's intercom. "You all right, mate? Can I bloody well take off now? There's Imperials on the station or you'd be finding me at the Hollows drinking them dry."
"Why are you here?" Merlin asked. He stretched his senses -- already raw and throbbing from being used so much over the last few hours -- and found nothing but the ship's usual complement of one. Will was on one of the upper decks, and it sounded as if he were moving toward the bridge.
"What do you mean, why am I here? I'm here because I got your message." A rumbling beep -- the ship's warning that engines were warming up -- echoed down the corridor. Merlin reached the ladder and leaped up, taking two rungs at a time.
"I didn't send you a message," Merlin said, stopping. He thought he'd heard a ping that was distinct and out of place on the usually quiet slipstream. "Is something wrong with your ship?"
"Had to take a wrench to the left starboard engine when Port started asking why I wasn't hauling arse out of here after I dropped my last load. The Blues were sniffing around -- not that you'd know, they're wearing civvies just like any other Joe Schmoe, but I caught them taking vids. One of them wanted a bloody tour. I know slipstreams are Old School, but I'm not a fucking museum!"
There was a long pause. The engine pitch shifted; that faint ping faded into the background hum.
"Wait a minute. What do you mean, you didn't send me a message?"
"When do I ever send you a message?" Merlin asked, crossing another corridor to get to the next ladder. The slipstream had been designed with alternating levels, with openings at cross-hatches, purportedly for improved structural stability. Merlin wouldn't know if that were true or not. All he knew was that it made it inconvenient to get from one place to another in a hurry. "I call. I don't leave messages."
"You call," Will snorted. "When was the last time you called? I swear, Ems, you treat me like I treat my birds. Can't be bothered with me when you're busy being the universe's most badass assassin, but the minute you need me, oh, that's when you conveniently remember my comm-code -- so the message's not from you? Who the fuck left it for me, then?"
"Shut your gob and get us out of here," Merlin said, pulling himself up the last level. The bridge was at the end of the corridor and took up a good half of the main ship; it was big and sprawling, with holo-controls displayed in easy reach of the sole pilot on board. "The sooner, the better. If they've noticed this ship --"
"They've probably tagged it, yeah, yeah, I know," Will said, waving his hand in the air as if he were dismissing a servant. He turned to look at Merlin and spread his hands. "What kind of rubbish is going on?"
"The kind of rubbish that'll blow us out of the bloody sky if you don't get us underway," Merlin snapped. He was already moving toward the nearest console. "The kind that got Alator killed for taking the wrong contract. The kind that got Freya killed just for knowing me."
In less dire circumstances, Merlin would have told Will that he hadn't changed one bloody bit. He still wore the same brown breeches, the same light-coloured shirt rolled up at the sleeves, suspenders discarded and hanging loose around his hips. His boots had a few more scuffs to them, but had been polished within an inch of their life recently, and there were a few more cuts and scrapes and weapon burns on Will's corded forearms. He was in desperate need of a haircut -- as usual. He hadn't shaved -- as usual. He hadn't bathed in the last few days -- as usual.
Same old Will. Same old, trustworthy Will, who meant well and would never betray Merlin and who wouldn't lead the enemy to the House of Shadows homeworld if he could help it. Same old Will, who would jump across a bloody galaxy just because Merlin needed help.
"Freya? Freya's dead?"
Merlin sank in the Captain's chair, feeling suddenly a thousand times heavier. He might not have been the one to pull the trigger, but all the assassinations -- particularly Freya's -- weighed on his soul.
"I'm sorry, Will. I know you --" loved her, Merlin didn't say. He didn't get a chance to, because Will took a strangled breath and turned away, calling up the main console again.
There was a forced, reverberating clunk when the airlock disengaged and fell away; the slipstream drifted in the gravity of the station's orbit before Will made a twisting gesture with his right hand and slapped his left forward, turning the engines on full power and arcing the ship's nose down at an angle that would take them around the station's central belly.
"It's a trap. I'm sorry. They're using you to get to me --"
"Then let them," Will snarled. "Why do you think I've retrofitted the Unpleasant Surprise? To ward off a thick-neck trying to board and steal my load? What do you take me for? I'm not blind. I know what you're doing, this fucking suicide revenge mission that you're on, killing off all the White bloody Legion --"
The ship wrenched a hard starboard, the pitch too sudden for the antigravs to kick in and adjust, and Merlin was nearly thrown out of the chair. Will was stock-still, rooted to the ground, and it wasn't until Will swung the display around and adjusted the ship's coordinates that Merlin remembered the mag plates in Will's boots.
"-- they were bound to come after you, you goddamn numpty. You and the House and everyone who bloody well knows you. You think it was my idea to quit shuttling supplies to the new digs when I took this ship over from my dad? I don't know what the Masters told you, but it was my idea to leave. No one made me go. I went because I wanted to protect you."
The slipstream spiralled and adjusted course; a new holo-screen popped up, red and flashing. Will turned around; the holo-screen swept past at dizzying speeds as Will waved his hand in the air, scrolling through the three-sixty gyro view, craning his head up until he spotted the Imperial cruisers coming after them.
"I never asked you to protect me!"
"Oh, so you'd be fine with them using me against you? Why are you here then?" Will stared at Merlin, hands on his hips, the ship still running from the Blues and the White Legion who were quickly catching up to them. "Could've given me a call, told me what was going on. Should've stayed on the bloody station, gotten a lift with someone else, anything. Let me sit and rot in port while they're watching my arse, get yourself somewhere safe --"
"Are you bloody mad? 'Course I'm not going to let them get to you, but --" Merlin glanced at the distance readout between the cruisers and the slipstream. "Can you get us out of here? I'm really uncomfortable with the idea of two Imperial ships charging up their missiles to blow us into another fucking dimension."
"Brilliant idea," Will said, giving Merlin a pointed look. "You sit and look pretty and… don't touch anything."
Will turned around. He called up the controls; a panel in the floor clicked and a platform rose all around Will, surrounding him with physical replicas of the overhead holos. He locked the gyro view in place, pushed it into the background, and called up the navigation. The pilot controls were on the platform, more precise and sensitive than the ship's three-dee motion sensors.
Will cracked his fingers one by one, keeping an eye on the small streaming holo of the cruisers coming up behind them at seven o'clock low and three o'clock high.
Merlin's hands dug into the arms of the chair. Shadows streamed up out of sheer reflex and bound him to the seat just as the slipstream did an abrupt dogfighting down, flipping itself like a pancake on a grill, and charged at the nearest cruiser.
Merlin closed his eyes tight. He could almost feel the stutter-shock of passing projectiles whizzing past the slipstream, even though such a thing wasn't possible in space. He opened his eyes again, and it wasn't better than in his overactive imagination -- in the three-sixty gyro view, Merlin could see the missiles flashing past far too close for comfort.
"Never asked you to protect me," Will mocked under his breath.
"I didn't," Merlin snapped. "I can take care of myself. Are the shields up?"
"Are the shields up, he asks," Will said, laughing. "Are the bloody shields up? Of course the bloody shields are up, and you're doing a bang-up job of taking care of yourself right now, aren't you?"
"I got myself here, didn't I?"
In the chicken game between cruiser and slipstream, with the cruiser at least twice the size of the Unpleasant Surprise, the cruiser blinked first and veered off out of the slipstream's path. The second cruiser was right on their tail, the first one did an awkward U-turn in a wobbly figure-eight, and they were heading right for the station.
"And walked right into a trap that you knew about, with no way out of it," Will pointed out, taking his hands off the controls. The ship slowed down and drooped suddenly, like a ship on a short anchor, and did a complicated maneuver that had them right behind both cruisers.
Merlin felt a little green. If the shadows weren't holding him down on the chair, he would've been a smear on the bridge's ceiling.
"Don't sell yourself short. You're my way out, aren't you?"
Will had his hands on the controls for half a second before he dropped them again, turning to face Merlin. His expression was thunderous. "What?"
"Sure, I could've done all those things you said. I could've called and given you a heads-up. I could've hopped another ship off the station. I could've been four systems over before they even knew I was gone, and fucking hell we're going to crash --"
Will flicked a hand in the air and jabbed a few spots on the console in front of him. The slipstream jerked left, out of the path of a slow-moving transport accelerating away from the station.
"And what?" Will asked, too calm and composed for Merlin's tastes.
"And they would've killed you anyway, Will. Or they would've caught up to me when I'm on one of those geriatric haulers," Merlin said, waving a hand wildly in the air before jerking it back close to his body, in case the motion sensors mistook him for Will. "Where would I be then? If you ask me, between one of those grunts and the best bloody pilot in sixteen galaxies --"
"Only sixteen?" Will gaped. "Only sixteen?"
"There's this bird who's a crack flyer out in the Valle Reaches," Merlin said. "Name's Isolde, you'd like her, but her First Mate's an arse -- anyway, will you bloody well get us out of here already?"
"No, no, keep laying it on nice, Ems. Butter me up some," Will said, crossing his arms. The slipstream must have been following a pre-programmed escape route, because it blared a proximity warning before side-spiralling away from a few small ships shooting out from the station.
Merlin blanched, recognizing the single-transport Needles. The White Legion wouldn't be able to force-dock onto the Unpleasant Surprise without either of them noticing, but it was still a situation that they wanted to avoid.
"Tell me how I'm the best bloody pilot in sixteen galaxies -- no, make that the entire universe -- and fuckshit --" Will grabbed the controls, and they narrowly missed impacting with a barrage of missiles.
"Oh my Shades," Merlin blurted out. "I'd rather walk into a trap with the best bloody pilot on the fastest ship in the entire universe because at least then I've got a halfway decent chance of getting out of this alive."
He threw up his arms out of sheer reflex, screwing his eyes shut, not wanting to see the last bright white blast when they flew right into a minefield. There was a sharp jerk that threw him nearly out of the chair again; it became an impossible weight crushing him into the seat a second later before he was hanging, nearly upside-down, the shadows the only thing keeping him in place.
And suddenly, it was all smooth sailing, the slipstream humming along, the engines taking on a certain quiet pitch, the skin surface practically whistling as it cut through space using faster-than-dark-energy.
Merlin opened one eye.
Then the other.
Will was casually checking his fingernails, buffing them on his shirt before studying them again. The control platform whirred down to its home position, and when it clicked into place, Will dropped his hand and grinned.
"See what a little sweet-talking will get you?"
"You're a bloody arse," Merlin muttered, the shadows fading from around him.
"That I am," Will said, his grin fading. "So. How about you tell me what's going on, right from the beginning?"
Location: Clan Pendragon Homeworld, Pirate Space
Arthur had been banished from Uther's rooms.
Gaius had wanted to see his patient as soon as the Excalibur landed on Clan Pendragon's homeworld. Since showing the Healer to his father's rooms, Arthur hadn't heard from him again, except for a few requests for medical supplies.
He leaned against the balcony railing, bowed his head, and for what seemed to be the millionth time, prayed.
Arthur and his father didn't have the best relationship. Arthur remembered a childhood fraught with an absent father off fighting a war, the constant upheaval of movement between planets, between ships, between star systems. He remembered living shipside with an assortment of minders that evolved from the nurses who read him bedtime stories, tutors who taught him everything from Imperial politics to Pirate laws, and armsmasters who drilled him mercilessly, fashioning Arthur into a warrior.
Through it all, Uther Pendragon had been a looming presence, distant and foreboding, rarely offering a kind world to even his own child. Sometimes, sometimes, Arthur would catch Uther looking at him with pride, even approval, and those had been the moments that he lived for.
Anyone else, Arthur knew, would be pleased at the prospect of coming out from under their father's long shadow, but not him. While Uther reigned as Pirate King, Arthur led Clan Pendragon, speaking for their homeworld and their allies at council meetings, and although his father never interfered with Arthur's decisions, he had always, always been there to offer guidance and advice.
The thought of losing a detached, but still ever-present influence in his life was frightening to Arthur.
Returning to the homeworld with Gaius and finding his father locked up in his chambers after nearly collapsing in front of the other Pirate Clans had been downright terrifying. Not only did Uther loathe showing weakness -- and with rights, too, because the other Pirates were bloody vultures just waiting to pick on his corpse -- Uther feared the aftermath if the heads of every Clan learned how ill he really was.
At the faintest hint of weakness, at the first sign that the crown was slipping from Uther's brow, the heads of the Clans would engage in a tumultuous power grab that would escalate from underhanded whispers to outright civil war. If that happened -- if the Pirates lost the fragile cohesion that had endured for the last twenty years, the Imperial Conglomerate would fly their flagship and squadrons of fighters across unclaimed space and decimate them all.
The Pirates had stood an united front for this long. They'd been a thorn in the Empire's side. They'd resisted Imperial expansion and thrived.
This time of prosperity and fragile peace wouldn't last if the Clans were so preoccupied by their personal agenda and power grabs that they wouldn't see the Empire coming. Arthur couldn't -- wouldn't -- lose what his father had worked so hard to preserve, even if it meant risking himself to find the answer to whatever ailed Uther.
It was some sort of miracle that no one outside of Clan Pendragon and a few trusted friends had learned that Uther wasn't merely sick. That he was dying. But Arthur wasn't an idiot. Someone, somewhere, knew that Uther was ill. Someone, somewhere, was already secretly planning to overthrow the current Pirate King before he was even cold in his grave.
The Pirates operated under a chaotic semi-democratic, completely ridiculous government headed by self-named elected royalty and guided by a set of laws so convoluted that it made even Arthur's head spin. The only times that Arthur had ever seen the Pirates set their differences aside long enough to look beyond their personal treasure piles was when Uther called the armada to arms against enemy marauders and the Empire. If Uther died, that tenuous cooperation would end.
There would be a call for a new King, each Pirate nominating themselves and presenting their cases. It would be put to a vote and everyone would vote for themselves, over and over again, until each of them began to make deals under the table or attempted to assassinate their most fierce opponents, and…
It would go to war, Arthur knew. It always went to war. Before Uther Pendragon came along and won their votes, the different Clans had fought between themselves for almost two years, each vying for the throne.
When the Empire was still an Empire and not a Conglomerate, the Pirates had been left well enough alone. But with the Imperial Conglomerate now in power, casting its nets ever outward for riches and glory and subversion, the Pirates could not afford to go to war.
None of the other Clans would see it that way if Uther died, Arthur knew. Among the Pirates, a power grab for a single Clan was greater than the safety of the whole.
"You look tired," Morgana said.
"I am tired," Arthur said, standing up. He cast one last glance over the horizon and wondered when the last time was that he had sailed the clear aquamarine waters and felt the salty wind against his skin.
It had been too long.
Morgana LeFay was one of the strongest Seers among all the Pirate Clans, and, as a Seer, had the autonomy and independence to move between Clans as she saw fit. Arthur had never understood why she had come to the Pendragon homeworld the day that Uther had been named King, and he would never understand why she refused to leave, but he knew better than to ask. Morgana would tell him what he needed to know and only when she felt it necessary for him to know, usually in the most infuriating of incomplete riddles.
"I heard that you found him," Morgana said, tilting her head. Her long wavy hair was a dark contrast against the lavender of her dress, her eyes a faded grey-green against pale skin, like the salted jade that sometimes turned up on the white beach in the winter. The silver chains around her throat only made her all the more ethereal and unapproachable.
They were a study of contrasts, the two of them -- like night and day, cold and warmth, distant and inviting. They were neither friends nor lovers, neither allies nor enemies, and yet they might be as close as siblings on some days, distant as strangers on others.
Morgana told him that it was the visions, that sometimes she would see him do terrible things, and during those times, she was afraid of him.
He tried very hard not to make her afraid.
"I did. It was a near thing. The Healer is with Uther now," Arthur said. He glanced at her curiously; she would already know that.
"Not Gaius," Morgana said, and with that, she turned to face the ocean, closing her eyes, her fingers tight around the stone railing. Her nails dug into the stone, her knuckles were white, and there was a tightness around her mouth -- all signs of irritation.
"You're such an idiot. Why did you let him go?"
Morgana glared at him; for an instant, it seemed her eyes shone gold in the sunlight streaming through the clouds. It was a sign of having Seen something, however briefly. "He's in danger."
Arthur didn't say anything. Maybe if he didn't ask, Morgana might tell him who she was talking about.
"He saved your life once. And if you survive until you find him again, he'll keep saving your life. Why couldn't you have gotten your head out of your arse long enough to save him?" Morgana turned, her hip against the railing. Arthur had to look away under the weight of her disappointment.
"I have no idea what you're on about, Morgana. I never do."
The arched eyebrow was all that Arthur needed to know he should have kept his mouth shut and waited Morgana out. Her slippers didn't make a sound on the rough stone floor as she approached, her head tilted to the side, her expression a forlorn mixture of annoyance and sympathy. "Have you ever met a complete stranger and felt as if you've known them your entire life?"
There was a man with bright blue eyes and unruly hair, with cheekbones sharper than the knives he carried on his person and a laugh that could devastate armies. His warmth was a comfort, his presence the missing puzzle piece that hadn't been missing until he arrived, and his instinctive protectiveness was a balm to Arthur, who had grown up sleeping with one eye open and never knowing why.
"No," Arthur lied.
"Don't make me thump you, Arthur," Morgana said. When Arthur refused to relent, she exhaled heavily, the quaint little huff drowned by the distant crash of the ocean waves against the shore. "He needs you as much as you need him."
"He seemed quite capable of handling himself," Arthur said, turning away before he saw the glimmer of triumph in Morgana's sharp gaze. "Hardly needed me. I was just a convenient way out for him."
"You chased him off," Morgana said.
"He chased himself off." Arthur's hands were balled up in tight fists on the railing. "Leave it, Morgana. I don't want to talk about him. My father --"
"Uther's fate is set. It won't change no matter what you do," Morgana said. "You're only prolonging the inevitable, and it's good that you are. You need to find him again before your father falls."
Arthur gaped at her. "Are you mad? Well and truly mad? I don't even know his name, and you want me to waste my time hunting for some… assassin when we're best served making sure our King lives?"
Morgana's eyes were stormy. "Our King lives. Uther is not that King."
Arthur stared at her, torn between wanting to strike her for her words and knowing that if he dared raise a hand against her, she would never speak to him again. He didn't think that she would leave, nor that she would be lured away by another Clan -- the Gods knew that many had tried, but Arthur wouldn't risk losing her counsel.
In a world where every other word spoken was a lie, only a Seer's word was the truth, and Arthur wanted the truth. If she kept that from him --
Still, it didn't mean that Arthur wanted to hear her particular brand of truth now.
He turned away and walked off the balcony.
"I know his name," Morgana said, her voice whispery and wind-blown, the oncoming weather tearing at her words.
Arthur stuttered to a stop. He made it three more steps, determined to ignore her, before he couldn't continue. A Seer's coin was in mixed metaphor and the haze of prophecy. Morgana had never offered up a specific detail before. He stared at the floor, his hands on his hips, and waited. He traced out the marble pattern, counting the red flint embedded around the golden dragon curling around his feet.
"You know his name, too," Morgana said, sounding closer now. A few moments passed, and Arthur felt a light touch at his shoulder that wasn't there when he turned around. "You've known his name since you first set eyes on him. You were sure of it when he guarded you. It's been on the tip of your tongue every moment of every day. Arthur. You're not fooling anyone. You're not fooling me. You even moan his name in your sleep."
Arthur flushed, but he didn't turn around.
"Why don't you say it?"
"It's not going to summon him," Arthur bit out. "And what good will it do?"
Morgana didn't answer him. The silence stretched, chilled by the wind blowing through the open balcony doors. There was a faint rustle of cloth.
"Where would I even find him? Even if… Even if I could leave, even if I was certain that my father wouldn't… That he wouldn't…" The lump in his throat made it difficult to finish, and he shook his head, frustrated. "What do I even need him for?"
There was no answer. Of course there wasn't. Morgana would never answer a direct question if she could help it.
"I don't know what to do," Arthur said. Sometimes, admitting his own ignorance and his own frailties -- sometimes that could soften Morgana's will just enough that she would give him a hint.
Not this time.
Arthur turned around.
Morgana was gone.
Arthur sighed, tilting his head back. He stared at the ceiling, hands on his hips, and wondered how long he'd been talking to himself, mooning like a fool. He was too old to be wistfully wishing on a complete stranger, to fantasize about a man he had barely spoken to. But, from the very instant that the assassin had put himself between Arthur and the Elite soldier from the White Legion, Arthur had been unable to put him out of his mind.
At first, he told himself it was because he had never known a man to be able to move like that. Fluid. No wasted movement. Everything with intent. He was faster than any man Arthur had ever seen. Lithe and graceful.
Gwaine waxed poetic about an assassin with pretty blue eyes who could see a knife flying at him through a dark corridor, who could jerk out of the way without a thought, who would dare to threaten Arthur. Perceval grunted approval at the way that the assassin had put himself between the Needler and Arthur; between a false, unseen threat and Arthur, and wondered if it might have become a trend if the assassin had stuck around. Lance was noncommittal, but Arthur knew that he was running background searches over the Net, trying to divine the assassin's identity while checking every communication band for the faintest blip of the tracker that the assassin had taken with him. Leon, who had watched the security feed, had shook his head and given Arthur a look that Arthur knew well.
You're gone on him, aren't you?
It didn't matter. The assassin was out of Arthur's reach.
Arthur had watched the surveillance feed that Lance had been able to pull from the space station, but the assassin had not merely located a blind spot in the feeds, found all the bugs on their person, and vanished. There hadn't been a backward glance, hadn't been a last look, hadn't been... anything.
He was just gone, as if he'd never existed, and he'd taken a part of Arthur along with him.
Arthur was hesitant to admit that it might have been his heart, because he wasn't normally the sort to fall in love easily.
Or at all.
Arthur rubbed his face with his hands.
There was a soft chime from his communicator. Arthur switched out of privacy mode and activated it. He had told Gaius to call him if there was any change, no matter what his status said.
"Yes?" Arthur asked, already changing directions to head toward his father's suites.
"The King is awake," Gaius said, sounding both pleased and exhausted. "And he is asking for you."
"I'm on my way," Arthur said. He stopped himself from breaking into an undignified run.
The King's suites were on the upper levels, with an office that faced the ocean-side and a bedroom overlooking the cliffs. The décor hadn't changed since Uther left the homeworld in Arthur's hands more than a decade past, still a teenager and struggling to prove himself.
Unlike the rest of the castle, Uther's quarters were a soft orange-yellow shade, brightening the room as if the sun itself were shining through the walls. The curtains were light and diaphanous with a heavier velvet overlay, the furniture was imported pine with a reddish stain, and the floors were covered with plush carpeting, because Arthur's mother had never liked to wear shoes.
Uther hadn't changed a thing since she died.
An assistant hovered in the outer rooms, wringing his hands in worry, and the look he cast in Arthur's direction asked a voiceless are there any news. A trusted King's guard lingered just inside the bedroom until Arthur entered, leaving the chamber to give them their privacy.
Gaius was standing off to the side, stoop-shouldered over a table, cleaning implements and capping bottles. He glanced up at Arthur's arrival and put everything aside to stand at attention, his hands clasped in front of him. "Your Highness," he said, his head bowing politely.
There was a reverence in his tone and a formality in his pose that gave Arthur pause. He opened his mouth to correct the Healer -- the Pirate Clans were not ruled by an inheriting monarchy and he wasn't a Prince -- but Uther sat up, distracting him.
"Gaius," Uther said sharply. It was a warning.
"Apologies, your Majesty," Gaius said, bowing again.
It was a surreal scene -- Uther sitting up in bed when Arthur had last seen him flat on his back, weak as a kitten, his pallor a shade shy of a corpse. He was stronger, now, alive, with a measure of vibrancy that hadn't been there before, his skin with some colour, a familiar wariness in eyes, his bedshirt hanging off what had once been an impressive frame.
Uther had lost a great deal of weight in the last few weeks. Even his mere presence seemed to have faded when it had once easily filled the room, commanding attention. It hurt to look at him, to see his once-strong father laying on the four-poster bed, thin and gaunt, the blankets pooling around his hips.
"Father," Arthur said, coming to the side of the bed, clasping the offered hand in relief. Displays of familial affection had always been rare between them, but there was a severity in Uther's expression that kept Arthur from enfolding his father in the relieved embrace he desperately wanted to give. "I'm glad to see you well."
"Arthur," Uther said. His voice was soft, and anyone else might mistake it for weakness, but not Arthur; this was how Uther showed a return of emotion, couching it in disguised fondness. It was there and gone in the blink of an eye, and the line of Uther's jaw tensed.
He looked hollow, as if he had been gutted from the inside out, the skin sinking into his skull. Age and strain were showing, now, and Arthur felt a surge of protectiveness that no one should see the King so weak, not even him.
"Arthur," Uther said, a frown heavy on his brow, as if he'd spoken and asked a question, only Arthur hadn't been listening. "You need to hear this."
"What is it?" Arthur asked, glancing from Uther to Gaius, who stood off to the side of the bed. There was a gravity to the Healer's expression that caused Arthur's knees to weaken, and he sat down heavily on a nearby chair in anticipation of the bad news.
"I don't have long," Uther said, as calmly as if he were commenting on the ships sailing out of port and remarking on the storm front chasing their tails.
The floor shifted under Arthur. It wasn't as if he hadn't suspected, as if he hadn't heard the others whisper behind cupped hands that the King's days were limited. It was quite something altogether to hear it confirmed.
"Father." Arthur's voice was hoarse. "But you're --"
"I've done what I can to regress the damage that the poison has done," Gaius said, spreading his hands in apology. "It is a very persistent, pervasive toxin. I can prepare tinctures to retard its progress, to give the King as much time as I can, but --"
"There's no cure?"
Gaius hesitated. "If I had been present when the King was first afflicted and able to collect a pure sample, there would have been a slim chance that I could synthesize a counteractive agent. Unfortunately, this toxin is… intelligent, for a lack of a better word. It was able to adapt and mutate to the biopharmaceuticals that were used to preserve the King's health, and as the majority of those were designed based on his specific physiology…"
He trailed off.
Arthur didn't understand. He shook his head and said, "Are you saying that everything we've done to save him only made him worse? That there's nothing else we can do?"
Gaius turned away. He made eye contact with Uther.
For the first time in Arthur's entire life, he saw Uther look away, abashed, embarrassed, like a child caught in a lie.
"No. Nothing," Gaius said, his voice soft.
Arthur's hands balled into fists. He bowed his head. Blood roared in his ears, and sparks appeared at the edges of his vision.
It was hearing the news all over again -- King Uther has been attacked. King Uther is down. King Uther is down -- except Arthur had been able to do something then. He'd reached his father , left his men to deal with the assassin, and escorted Uther to the safety of his guards before returning to watch as the assassin committed suicide rather than be tortured in a Pirate prison for his crimes. The council had been in turmoil, but Uther had emerged from the Physician's, weakened from blood loss, his clothing stained and rumpled, a bandage visible under the tears in the fabric of his shirt, refusing to show weakness.
Uther had healed. It wasn't until nearly a full system week had passed that he started showing the first signs. It had looked like a simple sickness, at first. A cold. A burning in the back of his throat, restless nights, feverish dreams. He responded well to the first treatment before succumbing again. Stomach issues, intestinal distress, hot flashes. And again, he recovered, strong and certain in public even though he was deteriorating behind closed doors. When they couldn't hide it anymore, they let slip rumours of a disease requiring aggressive immunotherapy. It was the only thing they could think of that wouldn't immediately alarm and alert the Pirate Clans.
Arthur had suspected a poison from the second time Uther had fallen ill and could only think of the assassin's attack as the cause, but none of the Physicians or Healers had agreed.
He succumbed under the weight of a strange sort of grief-relief to know that he had been right. At the same time, he clung to the desperate hope that maybe, just maybe, Gaius was wrong.
"The specialists of Nor," Arthur said, his words strangled through gritted teeth, "They couldn't find any poison in his blood. Is it… Are you sure?"
"The Norian Physicians are skilled, but this poison is beyond them. It is beyond a great many of us," Gaius said. "It is only because I assisted my Master in treating someone similarly afflicted that I am aware of the symptoms and the best approach to alleviate the pain."
Arthur stared at the bedsheets. Something sour and twisted sat in his belly. Unspeakable anger railed against the crushing denial pressing against his ribs. "Your patient. Did he survive?"
Gaius hesitated. There was another exchange of glances between Gaius and Uther, the silence filled with heated argument. Gaius broke first and turned to Arthur. "He died years later in an explosion travelling between galaxies."
Arthur latched on to the faintest thread of hope. "Years later. You did something -- you can do it again. There's an antidote, isn't there?"
"My understanding is that there is no cure, neither then nor now," Gaius said. "Though he responded well to the treatments, ultimately, it was the intervention of his Shadow Guard who kept the progress of the poison at bay."
"Gaius." Uther shifted, struggling against his pillows, but the Healer walked out of his reach, coming around the front of the bed to stand beside Arthur.
"Your grandfather was lucky. If he hadn't had --"
"Gaius," Uther said. He spoke no louder than an average, conversational volume, but the warning resounded in the room with the reverberating clang of a bell. "Get out."
"As you wish," Gaius said. He straightened, and, very deliberately, bowed deep at the waist. "Your Imperial Majesty."
Arthur followed Gaius' retreating form until the door shut behind him before staring at his father with wide eyes.
Uther glared, his cheeks ruddy with outrage, his mouth pressed in a thin line. He took several deep, faintly-wheezing breaths, collecting himself.
It was enough time for Arthur to string together all the deliberate hints that Gaius had dropped. Your Highness. Your Imperial Majesty. An explosion travelling between galaxies. Your grandfather. The Shadow Guard.
His voice was a hysterical hiss. "Is he mad? He thinks we're the bloody House of Dragons?"
Uther's mouth quirked in a mocking grin. He tilted his head, about to shake it -- a tiny little denial. But he couldn't meet Arthur's steady gaze. Bit by bit the fierce Pirate faded from the King and every ounce of royal decorum slid away until all that was left was a very mortal man, the burden of secrets and a lifetime of misery bowing pride into submission.
"In an entire bloody galaxy of Healers, of course you would find the one Healer who would know me, who treated me when I was a child," Uther whispered. He heaved a small sigh. "Did you really believe that I took on the Pendragon name to mock the Empire? It has always been ours."
Arthur sagged in his seat and stared. A small laugh huffed in his chest. The truth shocked him, but to hear it from his own father, to learn that it had been kept a secret from him his entire life? It hurt. He didn't understand.
And yet, he wasn't surprised.
His father the Imperial heir. Arthur could see it. Clan Pendragon was small, but it was also young. Arthur had never really thought about its origins -- for him, the Clan had always been there. The best and brightest had flocked to the homeworld, striving to fly ships under its banner. That Pendragon was new, inexperienced, less established than the other Clans -- it hadn't deterred people at all. If anything, that had been part of the lure.
Arthur had been too young in the early days to fully appreciate all the work that his father had put into the Clan. How they had somehow achieved the reputation of being the canniest, the most successful. They had been nicknamed the most royal Clan among them all, and that was even before Uther was elected King.
A complete unknown to the leadership of the Pirate Clans. That required not only faith and confidence, but influence and charisma.
Emperor Constantin had been known for his charisma, too. They said it was a trait of the House of Dragons -- the ability to quell tempers, to draw people to their side, to be equally soothing and fearsome with only a few words.
He stared at his father for a long time before realizing that Uther had been speaking. He forced himself out of his daze.
"They found me," Uther said. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Arthur. I never meant to keep this from you to hurt you. I wanted to keep you safe."
Arthur opened his mouth to speak, but the words were wrong. He tried again and again before spreading his hands in despair. "My father's dying. Do you think I care about anything else right now?"
Uther's smile was wan and pale, his eyes kind and gentle, and Arthur felt pinpricks of tears in his eyes. He wanted so much to do his father proud, and soon, he would be gone.
"What do we do?" Arthur asked.
"We carry on," Uther said. "You carry on. You do what you must because it is right. Because it is the only thing that we can do."
"Father," Arthur said, bowing his head. He shook his head. He knew that he would lose his father, someday, but he couldn't lose him now.
"Arthur. My son. There is one thing that I would ask of you --" Uther reached out across the bed and caught Arthur's hands. Uther's fingers were cool, the fingertips soft. There was almost no strength to his grasp, but it felt to Arthur as if Uther had reached into his chest to tear out his heart.
"No. No. You had better not tell me that your last wish is for me to take the throne you never could --" Arthur trailed off, a small, impossible laugh escaping his lips. He looked at his father, quietly begging, pleading him to say something. Anything.
But he didn't. Uther sat uncomfortably in the rich comfort of an extravagant bed, far more pale and wan than he had ever been. In that moment, Arthur saw what he had always seen in his father, but had never understood: the weight of responsibility, a distance borne out of guilt, the ache to repair what was broken, to take back what was his.
"I had wished… to be the one… to reclaim our birthright… so that I could give it to you," Uther whispered.
Arthur stood. "I… I can't."
He expected disappointment, a cutting I expected better from you, a snort of derision, a renouncing. Uther only pasted on a small, fleeting smile, and said, "I understand."
His voice was hollow, and it echoed in Arthur's chest, painfully reverberating a shortcoming he'd never known he had.
The words I can't had been struck from Arthur's vocabulary at a very young age. Uther had insisted that there was nothing that Arthur couldn't do, that he needed to apply himself, that he needed to work harder, that he needed to open his eyes to possibilities, to options, to resources. For Arthur's whole life, he had always striven to meet this impossible goal, to become this person that his father wanted him to become. He'd thought, he'd believed that Uther was a hard man, expecting nothing less from his son but perfection.
But that wasn't it. Not at all.
Uther expected the best from himself. And he'd failed. He was expecting -- hoping -- for Arthur to carry on, to pick up the torch where Uther had faltered and fallen.
And Arthur couldn't. Because if it had been beyond his father, how could it be within Arthur's reach?
Arthur sat down slowly, his limbs trembling under the strain. A small huff escaped him again; he closed his eyes and breathed deeply, trying to still the maelstrom of thoughts whirling in his mind.
Had Uther become King because it was in his blood to lead? Had he planned to rouse the Pirates in a war against the Empire? Did he want to reclaim what was his? Or had it all been sheer happenstance? Had there ever been another option? Had his father ever been happy as a Pirate, or was there something that spurred him on?
Arthur knew the answer to that last.
No one was blind to the injustices perpetrated by the Empire upon its peoples, the growing restrictions and unfounded arrests, the mysterious disappearances of agitators and imprisonments without trial. It hadn't always been this way, Arthur knew. The stories that he had grown up hearing had painted the last Emperor in a bright light, marking stark his failures, but for all that he had made mistakes, he was human, and everything he had done had been done for the good of his Empire. For his subjects.
For a people who had loved him.
It was a stark contrast to the mood in the Empire now, under the Imperial Conglomerate's rule. Fear had replaced love. Freedom was an illusion. The planets grew poorer even as the Empire grew richer, when there had once been a time when the wealth was distributed evenly, making the Empire ripe for the plucking, the Pirates spoilt for choice.
"I can't," Arthur repeated again, feeling something of that overwhelming responsibility that Uther must have carried with him his entire life.
Uther nodded faintly, calm, quiet, accepting, and Arthur wished that he would rage.
"I can't do it alone."
Location: House of Shadows Exile Homeworld, Uncharted Space
The native homeworld of the House of Shadows had been in the middle of a cluster of igneous planets orbiting around twin stars -- one a white dwarf, the other a red giant, and the light it cast through the thick upper atmosphere was filtered to something of a nightmarish, purple hue. The vegetation had been of varying shades of white and black and blue, absorbing whatever energy was available; the wildlife adapted for a day of perpetual night and a night of the blackest pitch. The cities had been glittering stars, twinkling in and out, barely visible from space for the shadows that lingered protectively at the ground.
Merlin's memories of his birth planet were hazy, like half-remembered lucid dreams, memories that weren't entirely his own. The magic of the shadows kept the genetic memory strong, passing it down from father to son.
Merlin remembered the darkness that was a balm of peace and protection, a home that was a castle with shadowed walls and sparse false-flickering lights, of laughter and love and a woman's smiling face, full of joy and delight.
He also remembered a city of lights, cast afire by a yellow sun, and even in the dark of night, it was always bright, as if no one could stand to be in the darkness for long.
These were his father's memories, fragmented and fractured, from well before Merlin had even been conceived.
Those memories were a contradiction that Merlin could never resolve, a contrast of planets and lives, and rather than dismissing either memory as an imaginary construct, he clung to the one constant between the two. His mother's eyes, kind and gentle, a borrowed memory. His father's touch, sure and strong, telling Merlin to be brave.
The slipstream slowed down using the gravity of the planets it passed. They approached the new homeworld of the House of Shadows at thruster speed, slow and sure, with Will at the controls. They couldn't afford autopilot, not now; this area of space was scattered with mines hidden in an asteroid field. Merlin broadcasted a coded transponder signal to prevent the mines from magnetizing on their approach and latching onto the hull of the slipstream.
He sent out a second broadcast, this one to let the House of Shadows know that they were coming home.
In happier times, a returning Shadowlord would be greeted by family and friends rejoicing for their return after a long absence, because it was rare for a Shadowlord to remain on their homeworld when they had duties to the Empire. Now, alerting the planet of their arrival had more to do with not getting shot down.
Those few who remained of the House of Shadows guarded their existence zealously. No one believed that the Imperial Conglomerate had forgotten about them. The bounty that the Empire had set upon the House of Shadows shortly after their exile had only increased over the years.
There weren't many of them left. Those who lingered, who continued to train in the old ways, like Merlin, were relics of a different time when honour and loyalty were the measures of a man's soul.
Sometimes, Merlin wondered about the weight of his soul, because he hadn't exactly been honourable, never mind loyal to his own people, not of late.
He rubbed his face before turning to the small holo-display emitted by the Captain's chair. Every few minutes came an encrypted message, and Merlin entered the coded answers.
It was rare for a ship to come so deep into the cluster of planets, to risk traveling through the asteroid cloud. Even with Will's impressive skills, it was taking all of his concentration to keep the small ship from being battered by the debris. A larger ship would be demolished, even crushed, in the attempt; a battleship would receive sufficient damage to force the navigator to turn around -- if that were even possible. Supplies were normally left on a planet on the outskirts of the cloud, and only at certain times of the year when the planet's orbit took it outside of the ring of asteroids.
The last string of codes beeped on the panel. Merlin answered it just as Will threw up his hands and flipped the controls to autopilot; on the three-sixty view, the asteroid field retreated, left behind.
"We'll cut through atmosphere in thirty minutes, plus or minus ten," Will said, as precise as ever. He sniffed the air. "You should shower and, oh, I don't know. Put on your uniform?"
"You know damn well I don't have my uniform," Merlin said, still tapping at the holo-panel. He'd been mentally composing a message to Master Kilgharrah since they escaped the Imperial cruisers, and it still didn't sound right. How does a former apprentice accuse their illustrious Master of subterfuge and entrapment without making it sound as if they were being compared to the White Legion?
"For fuck's sake, Ems. Are you that far gone?" Will stalked to the raised centre platform, leaning against the controls, his shoulders raised. He muttered under his breath before turning around. "You used to harp at me about customs and protocols. You're the one who warned me what would happen if I didn't show up wearing the proper robes at the ceremonies. Are you telling me that you're going to kick in Kilgharrah's front door wearing my cast-offs?"
Merlin shot a sidelong glance at Will before he resumed tapping out the message. He read it one more time before deleting most of it.
"I'll change when we land," Merlin said. He gave up on the letter he was composing and leaned back in the chair, running a hand through his hair. The cast-offs he'd borrowed from Will were a scratchy brown shirt and trousers; they brushed over his skin like barbed wire, suffocating and uncomfortable. His only other clothes were his working gear, and as much as it had been broken in over the years, even armour could ride up and chafe after a while.
He caught a glimpse of Will throwing his arms up into the air in frustration.
"We didn't talk about… after," Merlin said.
"'Course we didn't talk about after," Will said, his tone snappish and on edge. After Merlin had told him the full story, leaving out certain details -- like his unfortunate attraction to a certain Pirate -- Will had become quiet and mulish. He hadn't spoken to Merlin for hours afterward, and once he broke his silence, it had been to ask Merlin to get out of his way. "I don't think you know what you're doing after."
It had taken days for Will to calm down, but Merlin knew that Will was still raw and angry at having been left out of so much over the years. Merlin had cut him out of a dangerous part of his life, and Will didn't like it. He never had. Now, knowing that Merlin was up to his neck -- Will was up in arms and acting like a bloody mother hen.
"I know this much," Merlin said, making eye contact for the first time. "I don't want you involved. You drop me off, and you leave."
As a child, Will could hold his breath until he turned blue in the face, passing out from lack of oxygen when he didn't get what he wanted. He'd outgrown the habit -- having access to both a weapon and a slipstream ship gave him a few additional persuasion tools -- but it almost seemed that Will was about to pull out his old tricks.
"Don't even start with me," Merlin said.
"Start what?" Will asked, turning away. He flicked a switch on the control panel; his fingers danced in the air, activating the holo screens. He made a sound of smug self-satisfaction, braced himself, and --
The ship lurched.
"What the fuck --" Merlin twisted around in the Captain's chair, searching the three-sixty view for incoming, checking the proximity alarms. They were clear of the asteroid field, they couldn't have hit anything, he'd put in the proper codes, they shouldn't be attacked, they couldn't have been followed --
"Oh, dear," Will said, his voice a flat monotone. "It looks as if the engine's blown a gasket or summat. Probably the interface again, it's been jiggly for months. I'm going to have to ground the ship for a few days while you sort yourself out. Should be good to go again when you're ready to leave."
Merlin stared at Will. He shook his head slowly, in disbelief. "No, Will."
"Speaking of, if you need a lift somewhere once you've done your business, I'll be more than happy for the company. One small catch, though. There's a fee. It'll cost you the price of not getting yourself killed," Will said. His volume increasing until he was shouting.
"What part of I don't want you involved isn't getting through your thick skull?" Merlin snapped. "So help me, if you get in my way, I'm going to ground this ship and it won't be any of this temporary bollocks of yours, I'm going to carve a bloody hole through the hull --"
"You wouldn't dare," Will said.
"Try me," Merlin said. "I've got a new knife I've been dying to break in."
They stared at each other for a few minutes. The distant stars flashed by swiftly in the distance, the holo-feed of the three-sixty view slowly filling up with the swirling white clouds in the atmosphere of the new Shadow homeworld.
"You're not daft," Will said quietly. "I know you're not. You're aces. That's why I know what you're thinking, and what you're thinking is rubbish. If you expect that I'm going to let my best friend -- my only friend, come to look at it -- go on a bloody suicide mission, you've got another thing coming."
Merlin crossed his arms over his chest before realizing what he was doing. He stood up instead. "It's not suicide."
"Isn't it?" Will asked. "Let's see if I've got this right. Someone set you up to take the fall on a kill. You were supposed to die for that to happen. Needlers tried to kill you on that cruise ship. All of your contacts are dropping dead. They were waiting for me, Merlin. How do they even know about me? About us? Who even knows?"
Will wasn't asking questions that Merlin hadn't already asked himself, and Merlin didn't have any more answers for Will than he had for himself.
"I don't know, Will," Merlin admitted. He rubbed his eyes. He dropped his hands. He stared at the House of Shadow's current homeworld and…
He hated it. He had always hated this planet. From the time they'd fled and found this place, Merlin loathed it. The gravity was heavier. The sunlight a white-lavender and not ultraviolet. The plants not as fragrant, the vegetation a bluish-green. It wasn't home. It would never be home. And there would be no going home to the original homeworld, either, because the Imperial Conglomerate had dropped antiproton bombs on the surface, razing it, killing hundreds of millions of people, rendering it uninhabitable.
The clouds in the upper atmosphere were white; the ones beneath were a sea-seeded grey, filling the atmosphere with an acidic swirl of halogens that filtered the sunlight before it reached the earth. The ground was rocky and arid, the air had an acrid tang, and Merlin's eyes always burned and blurred for hours until he adjusted to the shift in the light spectrum.
Hundreds of millions of people had once flourished on a lush planet with as many secrets as those who lived there. Now, barely three decades later, a tiny fraction of that number eked out a sparse survival in a harsh environment where the greatest danger was being found.
"Do you want to know what I think?" Will asked.
Merlin quirked a smile he didn't feel. Will took it as an invitation.
"I agree with you. You were set up. Someone's out to kill you, and not just because you're Emrys, the most-wanted assassin in the bloody universe. The reward's nice, but it's not that nice, and no one, not even Needlers, would waste their time and money coming after you if it wasn't worth it. Whoever's behind this, they've got to know you're from the House of Shadows. That's the biggest cash cow, if you ask me, but I don't think they're in this for the Sterling."
Will tapped his fingers on the console. There was a faint clink and the controls hummed, descending beneath the deck.
"You must have… I don't know. You must have made a mistake somewhere," Will said hurriedly; there was a wince in his tone. Merlin lowered his head, snorting faintly, because he had spent his entire life not making mistakes and never leaving traces behind for someone to search on the Net and suss out an identity that didn't exist. "Or maybe you went against a Needler who figured out they can't beat you because you're more badass than they are, and they know that the only thing that's more badass than they are, that's…
"That's you." Will hesitated. "Of course they want you dead. You make them look bad. But that can't be the only reason why. It has to be because they figured out who you are.
"That you're the heir."
Merlin looked away. The lump in his throat was difficult to swallow. The planet filled the three-sixty view in front of him, the clouds like smears of swirling cotton candy, deceptively sweet and sickeningly cruel.
"You're the last Shadowlord, Ems," Will said, coming to stand beside him. Will reached out to touch Merlin's shoulder, but his fingers never fell; he knew better than to try. "I bet you anything they've always known who you are. And the only reason they're coming after you now? It's because…"
Will trailed off.
The engines rumbled faintly, slowing down. The ship juddered as its sleek skin absorbed the friction of atmospheric entry, compensating for the increase in hull temperature. They passed through the white clouds, the splotchy grey smears beneath, through the fog that always lingered until the sun broke through enough to evaporate the rain before it ever reached the ground.
"Because what?" Merlin prompted.
Will pointed at Merlin, his mouth opening to answer. His hand turned up, his shrug was faint, and he raised both eyebrows, as if he'd just surprised himself. "Fuck if I know, mate."
They stared at each other, the slipstream rumbling under their feet, all around them. Will's magnetic boots kept him upright, but he still wobbled. Merlin's magic held him firm, but it didn't help the feeling of his stomach dropping out suddenly, and he wasn't sure if that sensation was because they'd breached into the planet's gravity or because of what Will had said.
"So, maybe you don't have an afters," Will said, scratching his ear thoughtfully before crossing his arms and tilting his head meaningfully toward the planet -- the three-sixty view showed nothing but a cracked, broken land full of rocky cliffs and jagged edges. "But what's the plan for the next few?"
Merlin didn't answer. Not right away. He didn't answer because he hadn't had a plan beyond asking Master Kilgharrah if he had engineered the attacks on Merlin and to find out why.
He still wanted to ask why, but it was a different question now.
Tradition and courtesy dictated the habit of an initiate entering the Temple to meet their Master -- plain black hooded robes made of coarse fabric, the cut close to the body, the skirt loose around the legs and sweeping the floor, covering breeches and boots. Merlin was no longer an initiate, no longer an apprentice, but the old tenets still applied, and though his black robe was plain, the fabric was silky rich, and there were blacker-than-black stripes down the sleeves that denoted both his rank and his station.
And, as befit his station, he did not have the hood pulled over his head. Shadowlords were unmasked in the Temple in a reflection of the sheer power and control that had been bred into their blood, into their bones.
A ghostly memory spoke of the resonance of the Shadow Temple on the lost homeworld, the purring hum of the spiral spindles and the wispy lashes of natural shadows dancing around marble columns whenever a Shadowlord walked through the Gates. There was no hum here, no welcome, no greeting; the stone walls of the cavernous Temple were carved out of a sheer rock face, blank and without decoration, empty and without soul.
It made Merlin's heart ache in ways he couldn't explain. He had been too young to appreciate the Temples as a child, and now, he couldn't help but to hate them.
His boots did not make a sound as he walked the safe path along the narrow bridge. His robes swept the ground behind him but didn't disturb the dust and dirt. His eyes never wavered from the raised platform at the end of the long catwalk.
He didn't need to turn to know that he was being watched by initiates and apprentices who would never rise to achieve the Shadow's rank. He didn't need to reach out with his senses to know that the old Masters lingered in the corners, swathed in the darkness that had comforted them since the House's exile. He didn't want to see the defeat that had gutted them all with the awareness of how far their once-proud, once-strong House had fallen.
They disapproved, Merlin knew. The old Masters, the dedicated acolytes, they believed that Merlin should remain on this new homeworld and protect them, to rule their House into oblivion. Merlin's vengeance was Merlin's alone, fighting against an enemy who wanted the House of Shadows eradicated. Merlin should not, the old Masters argued. Merlin should hide.
Anger reverberated in the Temple, almost as palpable a presence as the shadows were to Merlin's senses. He knew; there was no avoiding it. Those who remained, blood and servant to the House of Shadows -- they had been quite clear. As long as Merlin continued to fight, as long as Merlin continued to risk himself, as long as Merlin walked among those who had cast the House aside, the more that Merlin put them all at risk.
The old Masters didn't understand. Merlin couldn't stay here on this lost planet. He didn't care for renown; he didn't care to return his House to its former glory. He meant to right the wrongs that his people had suffered. He meant to find a place where he belonged.
It wasn't here.
It would never be here.
Merlin took the steps to the raised dais two at a time in a fit of petulance, dropping useless dignity and decorum. He knelt -- one knee only, touching the ground briefly -- and continued on to the other side, leaving behind the murmurs of censure at his disregard for the proper rites.
He walked off the far end of the platform, let himself fall deeper into the Temple, and landed at a crouch on a stone catwalk rendered nearly invisible to the naked eye by clever carving and optical illusion. He entered a tunnel, bowing his head at the low ceiling.
He'd been a child, once, walking through these corridors, barely able to touch the smooth stone overhead even when he jumped, marvelling at the sights and sounds all around him, nervous trepidation slowing his step, stubborn persistence moving him forward.
Master Kilgharrah was the oldest adept of the Shadow arts, a veteran of wars from times long past, the keeper of the lore in an era when scholars had fled or were dead, the secrets of the House gone with them. He was short, shorter than Merlin, but broader of shoulder and rounded of chest, still strong and muscular in his advanced age, his scraggly beard hinting at long days and longer nights without sleep or respite, the deepening wrinkles at his brow and around his eyes speaking of great strain.
There had been a time when Merlin had been terrified of him, of this war hero, this mere man who had changed the turn of history, once upon a time. Kilgharrah had led the escape from homeworld, had rescued as many as he could, had found them a new home. He had been an imposing figure then, his hair a dark grey peppered with white, his gaze piercing and penetrating.
Merlin had exceeded Master Kilgharrah in strength and skill more than a decade past. Merlin had passed his trials and had become Shadowlord in a time when Shadowlords were made, not born, and among the Shadowlords who still held to the House, none of them were Merlin's equal. Not even Kilgharrah, the man of legends, the once-Shadowlord and Master of the Scythe, the man many whispered had the ability to move between worlds.
But now, Kilgharrah looked as if he could barely move between rooms.
"You're dying," Merlin said by way of greeting, his brow furrowed. He felt cold, suddenly, the sub-zero temperatures seeping through his robes, worming into his skin, burrowing into his bones. The shadows were thick, here, cloying against the phospholuminescent walls, absorbing the heat from the raging fire burning in the cauldron in the centre of the room.
When a Shadowlord died, the shadows reclaimed what was theirs. This room would go dark with Kilgharrah's last breath, burying the body in a pitch so black that no light, however bright, would be seen.
Merlin looked away. His eyes inexplicably stung. Kilgharrah had saved him, had raised him, had trained him. Merlin both hated and loved the man, had sworn that he would never mourn his passing. He found himself breaking that oath before the man was dead.
He saw the discarded trays, the barely-touched platters of food. If Kilgharrah couldn't even leave his chambers to get his meals, it was a sure sign that he didn't have long.
Merlin's hands clenched into tight fists, the bones of his knuckles cracking.
"Everyone dies," Kilgharrah said, easing himself slowly onto a wooden seat. Something creaked. It could have been Kilgharrah's spine; it could have been the chair.
"It doesn't mean they should," Merlin heard himself say, his own voice hollow and distant. How long had he been gone? When had he last seen his Master? How hadn't he known? "How bad?"
"Days. Weeks," Kilgharrah said, shrugging. He leaned an arm against the table, his body slumping with exhaustion.
Kilgharrah's hand pressed against his mouth. His gaze drifted to the flames, as if measuring; the fire danced in the reflection of rheumy eyes. When he answered, it was with the wave of his hand, the wriggle of his fingers. "I am old, Merlin."
"Not that old," Merlin said, crossing the room. His power sent the lurking shadows skittering back, and it seemed as if, for a brief moment, Kilgharrah regained something of his strength. "Not so old."
"In all our history, there have been few true Shadowlords. And in all my time, I have known only two," Kilgharrah said. "I may have won that rank; I may have turned myself into a legend. But I am no Shadowlord born. I am not immortal. Rare is it that I have been defeated, but I will lose this battle in the end."
"Kilgharrah," Merlin began, wanting to… do something. He took his old Master's wrist, his fingers feeling for the pulse -- it was weak, slow, slowing down. But it wasn't age clawing at Kilgharrah's steps, not sickness, not weakness. Merlin dropped Kilgharrah's hand with a start. "You've been poisoned."
"Hm." Kilgharrah's gaze went to the fire again. The shadows were suddenly heavier than they had been moments ago, defying Merlin's presence, threatening to take him with it. "After a fashion."
Merlin tilted his head, fighting to keep the confusion from his expression. Kilgharrah could be cryptic on the best of days, but Merlin had learned to wait the Master out. Eventually, he would give enough information for Merlin to piece the puzzle together, but it didn't seem that they had that time, now.
Kilgharrah started to stand; Merlin pushed him down with firm hands on the Master's shoulders. Kilgharrah's power pulsed and shadows struck out at Merlin in defence. Merlin cast them aside, hurting at how easy it was.
There had been a time when the faintest shadow-tendril at Kilgharrah's command could yank Merlin from his feet.
"I'll make the tea," Merlin said. "You… You can start talking."
The tea set was old and familiar -- cast iron and dented along the side where it had struck the wall when Merlin's power hadn't quite been under control. The ceramic mugs were chipped, the inside stained by countless teas over the years. The ritual was ingrained in muscle memory, Merlin could make the tea blind.
Instead, he made it in silence, counting down the seconds for the brew, stirring the mixture once more before returning to the table with a tray bearing steaming cups. He sat next to Kilgharrah, pushed the cup against his hand. Kilgharrah's fingers tightened around it, but he didn't drink.
"I taught you well."
"You did," Merlin said.
"I didn't teach you everything."
The unexpected confession drew Merlin's eyes to the man who had been a father, a mentor, a friend. He searched Kilgharrah's face, hoping to find answers in the new wrinkles forming around his mouth, hidden by the short whiskers of an unshaven beard, but there was nothing. Kilgharrah was remote and distant and stony, a bearing that he bore when he meant for Merlin to listen.
"What am I missing?" Merlin asked, his tone soft. There was a small quirk to his lips, and he wondered if, maybe, Kilgharrah had been kind, and had never said how foul the tea was whenever Merlin prepared it. "Is there a secret to walking between worlds after all? Could I pass through that door and find myself at home, wandering the Temple of Ealdor?"
"Worlds? No," Kilgharrah said, his tone breaking, hinting at amusements. "Walls, yes. But you know that trick far better than I."
Kilgharrah leaned back, his chin up, his gaze disapproving. The day that Merlin had learned the trick of it, he'd spent the day practicing -- jumping through walls, escaping capture, dodging his chores.
He had been seven years old at the time.
"I do," Merlin said, hiding a smile. He forced himself to sip the scalding tea before it cooled; it was absolutely vile when it was tepid, worse when it was cold. He'd had to finish off too many pots of cold tea as a child in punishment until he had learned to make the tea to Kilgharrah's liking.
Kilgharrah snorted, shook his head, sipped his tea. The cup trembled a little before he set it down on the table. Merlin stared at it rather than to see how weak Kilgharrah had become.
"The House of Shadow is not a house of assassins," Kilgharrah said, his voice a sonorous boom in the quiet room. Even the crackle of the flames quieted, lest it interrupt the lecture.
Merlin shook his head and held up a hand.
"I am not here for lectures." He'd had quite enough of them, if he were honest. The Imperial Conglomerate had appropriated the House of Shadow's fortune when the sentence was passed down, a theft that still shook the survivors to the core. They had enough funds to endure for several years, decades, even, but without income and no access to trade, the planet that was their exile would become their grave. It had taken time to garner a reputation that would command nothing but the highest fee, but Merlin's business was all that stood between a healthy population and ruin.
He was the head of the House, for all that he left the governing to the Masters, and it was his responsibility to provide for his people. He didn't much care how, and he didn't think that those who took the money to feed their bellies had the rights to dictate how he earned it.
Kilgharrah exhaled heavily. He bowed his head, clasping his hands on the table, the cup nudged aside. "What are we, Merlin?"
"You know what we are," Merlin said.
Kilgharrah's eyes were full of flash and fire, but his voice deceptively soft. "What are we?"
"Shadows," Merlin said. He shifted, uncomfortable in his seat. Did no one ever think of giving the old man a few pillows for his comfort?
There was no answer. Not right away. When Merlin was brave enough to look at Kilgharrah again, he didn't dare look away. "Shadows. And do you know what they say about shadows?"
"They're without substance until they're made whole," Merlin recited from memory. He hoped that Kilgharrah didn't intend to make him quote the Litany. It was full of riddles and metaphors and references that Merlin didn't understand, a compilation of pretty words and rhymes. Every child of the House of Shadow was meant to memorize it, to know it, to live it. It was a nursery tale, a bedtime story, a myth. It was the bane of every initiate who fumbled to memorize it. "They're ghosts and shades until they're bound."
"You know our history," Kilgharrah said, his eyes twinkling. He leaned forward. "You know --"
"Neither here for a lecture, nor for a lesson," Merlin said, his tone harsh. "Someone's after --"
"After you? Someone's entrapped you? Someone's out to kill you?" Kilgharrah pounded a fist on the table. "Do you think I don't know? That even in this washed-out imitation of our homeworld, I haven't heard? What secrets could be kept from a Shadowlord?"
Merlin fell silent.
They stared at each other.
The smoke from the cauldron fire drifted up and was teased by shadows not of human making; that was the death creeping closer, ever closer. There was an icy feel to it, harsh enough to douse the flames.
The room dimmed, growing darker.
"That's the wrong question," Merlin finally said.
Kilgharrah's nod was barely noticeable, but it was there. The shadows winked in agreement.
"You should ask which Shadowlord has kept a secret from another Shadowlord." Merlin straightened in his seat. "Can you answer that?"
This time, Kilgharrah smiled.
"What don't I know, Master?" Merlin asked. "What have you --"
Merlin lowered his gaze. He turned his head. He thought about all the Masters, and how furious they were whenever Merlin left the planet. He had always thought their rage misplaced, that they should be angry over their plight, using that energy to pull themselves from this pit of despair.
"What have all of you kept from me?"
Kilgharrah shifted, coming closer. One arm draped over the table, reaching for Merlin's hand. "You are the best of us. The strongest of us. A true Shadowlord, the last of your line."
Merlin closed his eyes and heaved a sigh. How many times was he to hear the same wistful prophecy? He'd been told he was the one since he was a child, trained to fill some unknown role. The prophecy made no more sense than the House's Litany, full of riddles and metaphors.
Two broken lines bound
One side golden bright
The other shadowsworn
An eternity of balance.
"I did not teach you everything," Kilgharrah repeated. He leaned forward, grabbing hold of Merlin's wrist, his grip iron-tight and unyielding. "And what I did not teach you is this: the House of Shadows has always served the House of Dragons. To watch over them, to keep them safe, to protect them. The Shadowlords have ever been sworn to their service as guardians."
"I know that," Merlin whispered. It was his failing, he knew. The reason why he was listless and restless, unable to find peace in this exile the way the others had done. But the House of Dragons had always been small, and the last had died not long after Merlin was born.
"Do you know that every generation, one Shadowlord is bound, life and soul, to the Dragonlord? That one Shadowlord, above all, is linked to the Emperor?"
Merlin made a strangled sound that was meant to be a disbelieving scoff. "That's a myth."
"It is real," Kilgharrah said.
"It can't be," Merlin said. His laugh was broken and shaky.
Kilgharrah pulled Merlin closer. "I was meant for the Emperor. For Constantin, who was assassinated in the explosion. But I was too far away to arrive in time. He was poisoned, he was dying. My friend -- your father -- he took the bond. Balinor shared Constantin's life, he stopped the pain, he slowed the poison and rendered it dormant. He kept the Emperor alive."
Merlin shook his head. He raised a hand again. "No. Stop."
"Listen to me," Kilgharrah said. "Your father lived. It took everything that he had not to die with Constantin. They found the bomb, they tried to escape, but it was no use. Constantin begged him to get his heir to safety. To bring Uther to me, before it was too late."
"No. No," Merlin said, pulling his arm away. They didn't talk about this. They didn't discuss Merlin's father. They didn't speak of how his father had fled like a coward, leaving the Emperor to his fate, breaking the honour of the House of Shadow in the process.
Merlin didn't want to believe Kilgharrah. He wanted to push the Master away, to accuse him of telling lies. But all he saw in Kilgharrah's eyes was the truth of someone atoning for his silence.
How could Merlin have been wrong? With the genetic memory he had inherited, however broken and fragmented, how could Merlin ever have believed his father anything else but brave? How much pain must Balinor have been in, to know himself dying, to fight to stay alive until he had completed the last task that his Emperor had asked of him?
Merlin had always been told that Balinor had died of his wounds. He had never known that Balinor had died bringing the Imperial Heir to safety.
Kilgharrah's fingers dug into his arm like claws. "Listen to me, Merlin. I am not dying because I am dying. I am dying because --"
"No," Merlin said, hating the tears that made his eyes burn, shaking his head vigorously. He didn't want to hear it.
Kilgharrah pulled at him, dragging Merlin forward and off the chair until Merlin was on his knees, fighting the tears. Rough hands callused from decades of handling weapons patted Merlin's cheek, lifting up his chin.
"My Emperor is dying, Merlin," Kilgharrah said, his voice gentle. "And now it is your turn. You are the last Shadowlord."
Merlin didn't know how long he knelt on the stone floor, the cold seeping into his bones, the shadows in the room finding a measure of wilful courage, coming near enough to whip and strike once, twice, three times. Merlin fell forward, catching himself with one hand; with the other he stumbled and twisted and sat, smearing the tears from his cheeks with the back of his sleeves.
His father was not the coward everyone had said he had been. His father had not abandoned the Emperor. He had not turned traitor. He had survived long enough to save the Empire by bringing his heir to safety.
"You lied to me," Merlin said, his voice broken. "You lied to me."
Kilgharrah didn't answer. He closed his eyes.
"You lied to everyone," Merlin shouted, sweeping an angry arm in the air. The shadows skittered back; the flames in the cauldron nearly went out. "You let them... You let them believe my father was a traitor, that... that he was a coward. How could you let me believe that? How could you tell me that? Why didn't you tell me the truth? Why --"
Merlin stuttered to a stop.
All those years, pushed and bullied as a child, called names by the older children, mocked for things that were beyond his ability to understand. All the adults who disregarded his decisions as he grew older, as he became more adept with his power, as he became stronger, taking on the role that was his by birthright. All the cold reception, the hurtful remarks, the derision.
This planet had never been Merlin's home because no one had made it a home for him. He had been one orphan among many after Kilgharrah had left them to sort out their exile. He had remained an orphan until Kilgharrah returned and took him under his proverbial wing.
"Why aren't you with him?" Merlin asked, his voice small, tiny, weak. If Kilgharrah had been here, with the exiles, teaching and training and mentoring Merlin, where had his charge been all this time?
"Uther sent me away," Kilgharrah said. If there was regret or sorrow in his voice, it was long gone; perhaps he felt no regret nor sorrow at all. "He couldn't stand to look at me and know that the members of our House had turned against the House of Dragons. He knew that if we were caught together, the secrecy of our flight would be undone. He had to keep himself safe. His son. I did what I could for him -- for them -- from afar."
Merlin slumped, shifted, moved; the heat of the cauldron was at his back, hot enough to burn. He sank against the stone brazier anyway, needing something to counteract the ice that had settled in his soul.
Would things have been different if the truth had been known? Would Merlin's life have been different? Would he still have fought as hard as he had done to become as strong as he had? Would he have fought to leave? Would he --
Merlin buried his face in his hands.
"Is this is why the White Legion is hunting me? Because they want the Emperor to die? Because they think I am bound to him, keeping him alive?"
"Perhaps," Kilgharrah said. But he shook his head. His smile was crooked, his eyes watery, as if he were holding back an overwhelming landslide of pain. "But I suspect they are after you because you are meant for his son."
Merlin stared. He barked a laugh that was more of a hiccup of horror. His head twisted from side to side, trying to express the denial he felt. He clasped his hands together and covered his face.
The litany of the House of Shadows came to him, unbidden.
For brave we fight against the darkness
Knowing we Guard the Light.
Our strength is greatest in the binding
And in binding we preserve the Right.
Kilgharrah stared at him unblinking.
"I can't," Merlin said weakly. "I can't."
"You must," Kilgharrah whispered. His trembling hand brushed Merlin's hair, swept at the tears on Merlin's cheeks. "He's the only hope we have."