Drade leaned back in his chair, a glass of Romarian wine in one hand.
Soon it would all be over, the planning, the scheming, the lies. He had them all where he wanted them. The Romarians had grown overconfident and lazy.
They looked out over the galaxy and thought they were in control, but he was the one in control.
Riga Twelve, Hodore, Cherlin Four, Cenia, Tierde, and Trellis, of course, had all agreed to put aside their differences. All he needed now was Daccar, and when he had Daccar, he would have Swernolt and Andoria as well.
United, they would attack Romariz, defeat Ralf, and bring peace to the galaxy. And he would be the hero, the one who had done the impossible, the one to bring Romariz to its knees. At last, after five years of plotting and scheming, he would have his revenge.
And Falkon would have his. Drade blew out a sigh. He had hated Falkon, blaming him for Maiya's death, and yet, with one simple apology, Falkon had erased five years of bitter hatred.
He finished his wine and threw the glass into the hearth. It was time for the last act to begin.
Falkon stood up as Drade unlocked the door to his cell. "What the hell do you want?"
Drade lifted one hand. A long silver tube dangled from a thick chain. "Do you want to be rid of that collar, or are you going to stand there and glower at me all night?"
"If this is a joke, I don't find it very funny."
"Still as wary as a Hodorian merchant, I see."
"Wary of enemies bearing gifts."
Shaking his head, Drade crossed the floor.
Moments later, Falkon was free of the hated collar and shackles. "Why?"
"I thought about what you said. Daccar won't follow me, but our people will follow you." Drade grinned. "No one fights like the rebels of Daccar." He held out his hand. "Will you help me bring the Romarians down?"
With a nod, Falkon clasped his old friends hand. "Let's do it."
"I think not."
Falkon glanced over Drade's shoulder to see Hassrick standing in the open doorway, a blaster in his hand.
Drade didn't turn around. "I need his help, Niklaus."
"No. He has no part in this. And neither do you, any longer."
"What do you mean?" Drade asked.
"I mean you have outlived your usefulness. Give me your weapon."
Drade withdrew his gun and dropped it on the floor. He shifted to the right a little, his gaze locking with Falkon's. Slowly, Drade lowered his gaze.
Following Drade's gaze, Falkon saw the small stunner shoved into the waistband of Drade's trousers. He nodded slightly, and waited.
"Now." Drade mouthed the word.
What happened next happened very fast.
Falkon grabbed the gun as Drade fell to the floor. Dropping to one knee, Falkon squeezed the trigger. Hassrick stared at Falkon as ribbons of bright light engulfed him, paralyzing him instantly. He pitched forward, the gun skittering from a hand gone numb.
Drade stood up, grinning. "Just like that night on Andoria." He picked up Hassrick's weapon and tossed it to Falkon, then bolstered his own.
Falkon nodded as he shoved the gun into his waistband, then tossed the stunner back to Drade.
"Aren't you going to finish him off?"
Falkon looked down at Hassrick. It was tempting, but it was too much like cold-blooded murder, and that had never been his style. "No," he replied, certain he would regret it later. "Let's get out of here."
They took Hassrick's atmospheric transport. It was a small, comfortable craft, prized for its ability to maneuver quickly and efficiently.
"You should have killed him, you know," Drade remarked, "or let me do it."
"Yeah. What did he do with Chaney's baby?"
"He gave it to one of the servants to dispose of."
"What happened to it?"
Drade snorted softly. "She kept it."
"The baby's all right, then?"
"Far as I know."
When they arrived at the port of departure, Drade pulled out his Imperial pass, explaining that he was returning an escaped slave to the mines of Tierde.
Falkon, once again wearing the heavy collar and shackles, stood with his head down. Hurry, hurry. He wanted to shout the words. Every minute they delayed meant another minute Ashlynne spent in the mine... I'm coming, sweetheart, I'm coming.
At last, they had the proper clearance. A few minutes later they boarded a League cruiser bearing the Romarian crest.
Once inside, Drade removed the collar and cuffs and headed for the cockpit. "You ever fly one of these?"
Falkon dropped into the copilots seat. "No." His gaze moved over the instrument panel. "Doesn't look too different from our own."
"It's not. Ready?"
Falkon settled back in his seat. "Let's do it."
Daccar glowed like a rare earth sapphire in the vast cosmos. Falkon felt a sense of exhileration as they drew closer. This had once been home, he thought, and in the back of his mind, he heard Ashlynne's voice. I'll be your home, she had said, and you'll be mine. Ashlynne. He closed his eyes and pictured her locked in a dreary cell, her life controlled by the collar at her throat, her nails broken, her skin covered with black crystal dust, her hands callused. I'm coming. Hold on, sweetheart, just hold on.
How? The word pounded in Ashlynne's mind. How had Falkon stood this day after day, week after week? Feeling like she was a hundred years old, Ashlynne lowered herself to the narrow cot that served as her bed and closed
her eyes. She couldn't endure another day, another hour. Every muscle in her body ached. And she was dirty, so horribly dirty. Even if she was permitted to soak in a tub for an hour, she doubted she would ever be able to scrub away the fine black dust that covered her from head to foot.
She lifted a hand to her hair, felt her tears start as she touched the ragged ends. It seemed foolish to cry for something so mundane as her hair when there were so many other worse things to cry over, but she couldn't help it.
"Oh, Falkon," she whispered, "I'm glad you can't see me now."
Oh, Falkon, her heart cried, I wish you were here.
Falkon stood at attention before General Addiz and the six members of the counsel, his voice low and flat as he made his report. Drade stood beside him, as he had so many times in the past. In their youth, they had boasted that the two of them could take on the galaxy. Now, at last, they had their chance.
The members of the counsel regarded Falkon for several moments when he finished speaking, their faces impassive. It was an old trick, one he had often employed himself. He remained at attention, his gaze focused on the mural behind the counsel table. It depicted a scene from a mythic battle between Dacca and the fierce two-headed dragon, Aka-r.
"We will consider your remarks," General Addiz said at length. His hard gray gaze settled on Drade. "Your life has been spared in return for the life of Commander Falkon. Had you not returned with him, your life would now be forfeit. The two of you will wait here until we have reached a decision."
Rising, the general left the chamber. The other members of the counsel rose majestically and followed the general from the room, quietly closing the door behind them.
"Well," Drade remarked dryly, "that was fun. How long do you think it will take them to make up their minds?"
"Not long," Falkon replied dryly, and jerked his head toward the door.
General Addiz entered the room alone. He took his place at the head of the counsel table. He did not sit down, but stood there, his hands braced on the tabletop.
Falkon took a deep breath. Any decision reached this quickly had been decided before the counsel members left the room.
"Commander Falkon, despite the recent treaty we have decided to join our forces with the other allies in their fight against Romarian rule."
"Thank you, General."
"Our fleet will rendezvous with the others on Swernolt. I trust you will join us."
Falkon shook his head. "I'm afraid I can't, General. I have other business to take care of."
"I will take your reasons into account before I order you to report to your ship."
"I have to go to Tierde," Falkon said. "My woman, Lady Ashlynne of Myrafloures, was sent to the mine as a slave. I can't leave her there."
"Myrafloures? Isn't she the daughter of Lord Marcus?"
"Yes." The General frowned. "Is she not the heir to the mine?"
"It's a long story, General."
"I'd like to hear, when you have the time." The General drummed his fingers on the tabletop, his expression thoughtful. "Very well. Commander Falkon, the mine on Tierde is vital to the allies. You will go to Tierde and take control of the mine. I will prepare the necessary documents."
"Thank you, General."
Addiz nodded. "I will expect a report from you when you arrive."
"I will have a ship at your disposal." The general focused his attention on Drade. "What are your plans?"
"I want to fight."
"Very well. You will be reinstated, albeit with a reduction in rank until you have again proven yourself worthy to be an officer."
Drade nodded. "I understand."
"You will leave for Swernolt tomorrow."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
The general's gaze rested briefly on each man. "Good day, gentlemen."
"Well," Drade said when they were again alone in the room, "looks like I'm back where I started."
"You'll earn your rank back by the time the fighting's over," Falkon predicted. He held out his hand. "Good luck to you."
Drade took Falkon's hand in his. "And to you."