— 1 —
“The darkness does not swallow the light, but gives birth to it.”
On this particular day, a glorious sunny day in mid-winter here on Pantheon the central world of the Imperium, the imposing figure of Ravan Tal strode with a purpose across the soft-pink marbled floor. Each footfall of her boots echoing about the cavernous interior of the Odessa’s Palace. Tall slender columns of fluted marble soared into a vaulted roof above, which was decorated in the renaissance style of another era. Heavenly cherubs looked down on the Inquisitor as she passed, but her eyes remained focused on a single point some distance hence. A huge arched doorway flanked by two soldiers dressed in their ornate palace livery. Each holding pikes stood at ease fending off hours of silence and boredom.
The Inquisitor approached like a black-clad figure out of history, cloak swirling behind her like the flapping wings of some huge monstrous raven of Pantheon myth. All she needed to complete the picture of menace was the long dark flowing hair of a Valkan. As it was, the Inquisitor wore her dark hair short, brushed back from her face, which was usually hidden beneath the hood of her cloak when out in public places. The one thing that identified her, if not her elevated status, was the large ornate silver clasp with the Inquisitor’s Sigil on her cloak.
At the last minute, as if she knew the Cherubs above her were curious to know what she looked like, Ravan Tal pushed the hood back to reveal her face. Upon nearing the twin guards, the pair snapped to attention pikes in full salute, eyes straight ahead, as they acknowledged her rank. In unison and as if by magic, the two huge carved golden doors parted with perfect timing, allowing Ravan Tal to pass into the private reception area beyond, which, even at this early juncture of the morning, was crowded with petitioners and hopefuls, all waiting to see the Odessa. Or, at the very best, one of her senior Ministers. Though most would be lucky to see a junior minister, let alone the Odessa herself.
Ignoring the openly staring faces and not breaking step or pace, as the sea of bodies moved or stepped back from her, the Inquisitor angled toward a small plain-wood door in the far corner of the room. Not pausing to knock, Ravan Tal grasped the handle, opened the door, and walked into the comfortably furnished office that looked more like a Lady’s drawing room.
“Where is she?” The voice full of authority asked. Ravan Tal finally came to a halt a foot from the desk.
A plain but immaculately dressed woman of middle years looked up from her work at the desk she sat at, and doffing a pair of half-moon glasses, smiled.
“Ah! Ravan Tal, and a delightful good morning to you too.” The soft-faced plump woman rose and came round her desk to greet the Inquisitor. There was no handshake between Lillian Argenta, the Odessa’s Chief of Staff, and the Inquisitor, Ravan Tal. Not only was it not protocol to do so, as skin contact with an ordinary sensitive wasn’t without risk, but that it was socially abhorrent by non-Sensitives to stand too close, let alone associate with a Sensitive. Not so Argenta, who stepped toward Ravan Tal so that their personal space merged as one. And act more in deference to her, than defiance.
“You have not changed one bit, Lillian Argenta.” The voice softened.
“Really?” Argenta flicked a brow and cocking her head to one side, looked the Inquisitor up and down. “Nor have you.” She paused but a heartbeat, “shall I tell your mother you were here?” She continued the ritual.
Betraying no emotion, Ravan Tal nodded, “yes, my t’aunt, you may.”
Argenta caught the ghost of a smile as it turned one corner of the Inquisitor’s mouth. So, despite the stern appearance, the Inquisitor was in a forgiving mood. Forgiving mood or not, Argenta didn’t say, ‘when was the last time you saw your mother, my sister Rekha?’ Or even, ‘you should visit your mother more often, you know she misses you.’ No amount of pleading on her account would make the Inquisitor change her mind. Would heal wounds that ran deep, or would mend bridges long since burned. Argenta, for her part, had learnt that lesson early on and in the twenty year that had passed since Ravan Tal had been elevated to the highest order of Grand Inquisitor, nothing had changed between mother and daughter.
The distance was just too great.
“The Odessa is waiting for you in her private quarters.”
Keeping her sigh to herself, Argenta turned and walked toward another door hidden in a recess on the far wall. She didn’t wait for her guest to follow.
Staring at the departing back for a heartbeat, Ravan Tal felt a wave of emotion threaten to crash in on her senses. She reined it in as she followed Argenta through into the more modestly decorated corridor beyond.
It had been like this for days. Pressure, at the back of her skull, as if a tremendous headache threatened. Her senses all on alert not just tingling with anticipation. Something that happened every time she held a crystal in her open palm. But a full on array that, at times these last few days, had made her feel like she were drowning with sensory overload. This was more than anything else she had ever dealt with; in any of the cases she had handled over the last twenty years. And she handled only the most significant or important cases assigned her by the Five Law Lords or the Odessa herself.
Today looked to be one of those days when the Odessa, Aerian Caligisto had something of a politically sensitive nature for her to deal with. And of that, she had only a small inkling of what it might be.
Argenta took her through a maze of look-alike corridors that ended when they arrived at a modest looking wooden door flanked by two elite Palace Guards, each dressed in combat-ready uniforms, complete with suitable weaponry.
One guard took a couple of minutes to scan both the Odessa’s Chief of Staff and the Inquisitor with a handheld device, confirming that their identities were genuine, while the other guard looked on weapon held at the ready. Verification of their DNA complete, and at the nod from his fellow guard, the pair was allowed access to the room beyond.
In the old part of the palace, where the doorways were a good foot smaller than elsewhere, Ravan Tal instinctively ducked her head as she followed Argenta into the well-appointed salon. The upholstered furniture spoke of use and comfort. It smelled of well-worn leather and Lilacs, the Odessa’s favourite flowers. And, true to form, as Tal made her way to an overly large stuffed pink brocade settee, she spied any number of vases of fresh cut blooms adorning the room. She stifled the urge to sneeze. She was not good around flowers, animals or children. The last having nothing to do with any perceived allergic reaction. Children were brutally honest. Up until a certain age, before they learnt any guile or how to lie effectively, their errant butterfly thoughts leaked out and pooled around their fragile bodies like so much static.
“You might as well take your cloak off, sit and get comfortable, she might be awhile,” Lillian Argenta stood by a broad but plain antique desk, “I’ll order you kaffir?” She asked from across the room, as Ravan Tal unclasped her cloak and laid it across one end of the settee, along with a black-leather satchel that the cloak had hidden beneath.
“You still prefer those heavy-roasted beans from Malakhai?” Argenta watched the Inquisitor, as the tall slender woman sat. Those impossibly long legs only just finding room beneath the glass table. It was still a wonder to her even now that her little sister’s daughter had risen to not only become a Judge, but Grand Inquisitor. The family, as a whole, had been well blessed over the years with position and places of power through marriage, manipulation and deed. But raw talent? A talent like Ravan Tal’s? Never. No one in the family’s entire history, that went back several centuries, had ever manifested as a Sensitive. Ever.
“Yes. Thank you.”
Argenta, she decided, was being particularly accommodating. Ravan Tal narrowed her eyes but a fraction, and watched the plump woman fuss over items on the desk, rearranging them, avoiding not only eye contact but conversation. Well enough. Tal thought. She would find out what the intrigue was, soon enough, from the mouth of the Odessa herself. It was a little out of the ordinary for Argenta not to have given her a pre-brief in the Chief of Staff’s own office on the other side of the palace, and more than a little unusual to be here, in the Odessa’s private and, no doubt, well-shielded quarters. There were any number of discussions even the Odessa, Tal was sure, didn’t want her, the Grand Inquisitor, listening into by accident.
Whatever it was the Odessa wanted her to deal with on this day, was both sensitive and, more than likely, as she had not heard any whispers on her voyage in from the outer colonies, still very much a secret to the rest of the Imperium. Not even her staff at this morning’s briefing had even a vague idea of what this hastily called-for meeting was all about. Her spy-network hadn’t quite failed her though, as one of her trusted, the thief Kevyn Brant had sent one unadorned word to her.
The cool, pale-skinned blonde known throughout Imperium space as the Odessa, Aerian Caligisto, entered the room quietly from a secluded side door. She radiated a very subtle feminine power, and was every inch a woman use to wielding that power for whatever reason, without hesitation. But even she wore a scowl on her perfect face to match her rather stark outfit of black brocade high-collar beaded jacket, simple leather pants and pure, hand-spun white silk ruffled blouse, whose cuffs teased out at on a pair of delicate wrists. The high-waisted belt supported a small intricately crafted buckle that matched the silver dress buckles of her knee-high boots.
On her feet, Ravan Tal savoured the look and favoured the Odessa with a warm smile of greeting. Whatever the subject that was about to be discussed, she had not see Aerian in over a full Cycle, and wanted these few fleeting seconds of pleasure to herself before the business at hand, began. As always, when the Odessa turned those pastel blue eyes on her, a heat rose in her chest and her pulse quicken. It was the only emotion she allowed herself these days. Resigned, as she was to the fact she would never have an intimate relationship with anyone.
Coming to stand in front of her, Aerian returned her smile with one full of warmth all of its own. Tal looked down at the Odessa, who was a full head shorter than her, and let the Odessa take her right hand. Though gloved, Tal still felt the muted tingle of contact shoot up her arm. The Odessa’s touch was a gift; they both knew the consequences of anything more. A kiss was out of the question, no matter how much either woman wanted it otherwise. A lifetime of longing that had grown over twenty years had gone unanswered, and would remain that way.
Lillian Argenta watched the two women with a heavy heart and a sigh on her lips that found no voice. She bided the quiet leaving the women a few precious moments together.
Ravan Tal remembered she had to breath in order to exist, despite her exceptional skills and talents. She was still, all too human. With a quiet breath of regret, she withdrew her hand as the Odessa bade her sit. There was an amicable silence between them for a moment as they each waited. Argenta fussed around them, serving the Kaffir that had arrived with clockwork precision at the moment the Odessa had entered the room.
With a motherly look to both women sat on the settee, Argenta nodded.
“I’ll be in the next room knitting should either of you need me, try not let the world end while I’m gone.” She quipped and, without waiting for a response to her jest, she turned about heel and left the two women alone.
“I swear that woman becomes even more maddening by the year.” Aerian clucked, her tone, though, light and teasing. Tal leaned back into the plush upholstery and waited for Aerian, who stared at something on the small occasional table. The silence itself, speaking volumes.
“Illian?” Tal said at length, and watched the beautiful head snap round, and pale eyes regard her.
“I have my sources,” was all Tal conceded, playing the game they all played so well.
“And elsewhere?” The Odessa probed, wanting to know what the word was out in the shipping lanes, because, as soon as word got out, it wouldn’t be so much as all hell breaking loose, as, all Hell breaking loose. As far as her spies network were able to tell her, neither Guild nor the Ruling Families of the Landsraat had made any move, so either they didn’t know what had happened yet, or had yet to react to events unfolding elsewhere. The one thing the Odessa wanted was to make sure she had her people in place when word did get out, and that included Ravan Tal, the Grand Inquisitor herself. Who answered only to the five Law Lords themselves. Even then, Ravan Tal was a calculated risk.
“Static, as if the silence—”
“Was just as telling?”
“So, people are uneasy about something—”
“But don’t know what or why,” Tal finished, as she looked into the face before her. Clear eyes masked the concern so cleverly. Tal wanted to take out a crystal from her satchel and ask for answers. But refrained, waiting for Aerian to get to the point.
“I need you to go to Illian.”
Tal felt a small V form between brows that began to meet.
“They might not let you land.” Aerian added, her face the perfect mask of serenity. Tal had seen the look used so many times, to good effect, in any number of delicate negotiations. And, whatever their nature, Aerian Caligisto never showed her hand unless it was to her benefit and her benefit alone.
Tal didn’t respond with the quip, they had an obligation to let her land. Instead she pondered the angles and implications of such a simple statement. Well aware Aerian was watching and waiting for a reaction. A perfectly plucked brow arched.
“You think this will erupt into an all out war?” Tal leapt ahead of the unspoken conversation.
“I’m hoping that in sending you, it won’t.”
Whatever the problem was, it was bad, and already escalating out of control. And it involved the Mining Guild, who, Tal surmised, had effectively managed to seal Illian off from traffic in and out. And not only that, had effectively stopped word getting out of what they had done to the rest of the Imperium. No wonder Aerian had called her back so abruptly without so much as a reason why. Having sent her own personal Yacht to collect her.
“Where do you want me to start?” Tal leaned forward and placed her empty cup down on the glass-topped table and, regaining her composure, nodded for Aerian to continue not prepared for the Odessa’s next statement. The cool eyes betrayed a flicker of emotion.
“I believe the black crystal on Illian has been contaminated.”
“What? All of it?” Ravan Tal was astonished.